The new head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church has had a bumpy start after clergy snubbed his appeal to adopt a new uniform liturgy, and as controversial remarks he made two years ago surfaced online.
Archbishop Raphael Thattil was elected Jan. 9 as the Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly and ex officio head of the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Among his first acts as major archbishop was to be the first signatory of a Jan. 13 appeal by 49 members of the synod of bishops’ — the Syro-Malabar Church’s authoritative governing body — to members of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, urging them to embrace the new form of the Eastern Church’s Eucharistic liturgy.
The appeal was issued with a circular letter from the archeparchy’s apostolic administrator Bishop Bosco Puthur, who asked priests to read out the message in their parishes on Sunday, Jan. 21.
According to Indian media, only 10 of the 328 churches in the archeparchy complied with the request, underlining the deep local resistance to the liturgical change.
The majority of lay people and clergy in the archeparchy oppose the new liturgy, which has been introduced with sporadic opposition in the Syro-Malabar Church’s other 34 eparchies, or dioceses.
Resistance in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy has taken the form of boycotts, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy. Clashes between supporters and opponents of the uniform liturgy in December 2022 led to the shutdown of the archeparchy’s cathedral, which remains closed more than a year later.
Immediately after his election, Thattil struck a conciliatory note, comparing Syro-Malabar Catholics who felt aggrieved by the push to introduce the new liturgy to “lost sheep” who required loving pastoral care.
But his signature on the synod of bishops’ appeal appeared to dampen the early goodwill in the most prominent and populous of the Syro-Malabar Church’s eparchies.
Following the rejection of the liturgy appeal, a second controversy emerged related to a speech that Thattil delivered in 2022, when he was the Bishop of Shamshabad, a unique Syro-Malabar jurisdiction covering much of India outside of the Eastern Church’s heartland in Kerala state.
A video of the speech was posted Jan. 10 on the YouTube channel of St. Mary’s Church in Bangalore, where Thattil gave the address, in which he spoke off the cuff about the role of Western missionaries in the development of Indian Catholicism.
Thattil stressed that it was vital for Syro-Malabar Catholics to remain loyal to their own particular Church, which co-exists in India alongside the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church and Latin Church.
Both the Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Church trace their origins to St. Thomas the Apostle, while the Latin Church’s presence in India dates back at least 11 centuries.
Of India’s 174 Catholic dioceses and eparchies, 132 belong to the Latin Church, 31 to the Syro-Malabar Church, and 11 to the Syro-Malankara Church.
Thattil’s brief, informal account of Indian Catholic history, which was shared widely on social networks, upset some in the Latin Catholic community, who felt he was diminishing the missionaries’ contribution and denigrating the Latin Rite.
The Syro-Malabar Media Commission issued a Jan. 23 statement calling for Thattil’s remarks to be seen in the context of his efforts to establish pastoral provision for Syro-Malabar Catholics living in parts of India outside Kerala.
“In the course of his arduous mission, an excerpt from a speech he delivered at Bangalore in 2022, addressing a community of believers on the need for the formation of unique pastoral systems for the Syro-Malabar Church and the co-operation of the Syro-Malabar faithful, is now widely circulated,” the statement said.
“At the core of the speech was a call for members of the Syro-Malabar Church to participate in gatherings of communities according to the Church’s unique liturgy.”
The Kerala Region Latin Catholic Council (KRLCC), a body representing Latin Catholics in Kerala, issued a statement saying that Thattil’s comments weakened relations within the Catholic Church in Kerala.
Thattil needs to maintain positive ties with the Latin Church because as head of the more than 4 million-strong Syro-Malabar Church, he is responsible for Syro-Malabar Catholics not only in India but also in the diaspora, which includes communities in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand.
One of his biggest challenges will be to expand the pastoral care available to Syro-Malabar Catholics outside of India. Many fulfill their Sunday obligation by attending Latin churches due to a lack of nearby Syro-Malabar parishes.
Despite his difficult start, Thattil continues to enjoy support among Syro-Malabar Catholics.
Fr George Mankuzhikary, a Syro-Malabar priest serving in Australia, said that the major archbishop’s rise had been fueled by his “determination to bring people together and propel progress.”
“Mar Raphael Thattil is not just a bishop; he is an inspiring retreat guide, orator, and a gentle personality as known among bishops,” Mankuzhikary wrote Jan. 23 in The Catholic Weekly, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney.
“As a bishop, he embodies humility and simplicity. What sets him apart from many is his willingness to listen to everyone, making him an approachable figure to everyone.”