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As the bishops of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church gathered for an emergency meeting this week, two images were being shared on instant messaging apps showing the scale of the problem they faced.

A photograph that circulated on instant messaging apps showing a police vehicle at Mount St. Thomas in Kakkanad, southern India, June 11, 2023.

The first showed a police van outside their meeting venue, the Syro-Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Curia in Kochi, southern India, presumably dispatched because the civil authorities feared trouble. 

The second featured a group of lay protesters standing under colorful umbrellas outside St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in the same city.

Together the photos highlighted the acute tensions around the topic the bishops are meeting to address: The decades-long “liturgy war” within the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome.

Since 2021, the dispute has entered a ferocious new phase marked by street brawls, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy, as well as ugly clashes inside the cathedral basilica, which has been shut all year as a result.

This week’s emergency meeting has been called to bring an end to the escalating confrontations. The bishops are likely to be considering three possible courses of action: Sanctions, division, and dialogue. 

But before we explore these options, let’s recall what the dispute is about.  

Syro-Malabar Catholics hold a protest calling for the reopening of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, India, on June 12, 2023. Courtesy photo.

East or West?

The Syro-Malabar Church, which traces its origins to St. Thomas the Apostle, is called “Syro” because it uses the ancient East Syriac Rite liturgy and “Malabar” in reference to its heartland, India’s southwestern Malabar Coast.

While the Church has deep Eastern roots, it was heavily influenced by the Latin Church from around 1600 onward. After almost 300 years of Latinization, it gradually regained its autonomy but lacked a uniform liturgy.

A movement arose seeking a single, unified mode of the Syro-Malabar Eucharistic liturgy, known as the Holy Qurbana. In 1999, after decades of debate, the majority of bishops endorsed a formula known as the “uniform mode,” in which the priest faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and then faces the people again after Communion. 

They saw the new mode — also known as the “50:50 formula” — as a sensible compromise between the Church’s ancient tradition, in which the priest was positioned ad orientem (toward the east), and the post-Vatican II practice where the priest faced the people throughout the liturgy.

Most of the Church’s roughly 4 million members agreed. After the Synod of Bishops — a body with the power to enact liturgical laws — appealed in August 2021 for the universal adoption of the “uniform mode,” 34 of its 35 dioceses heeded the request (with sporadic opposition).

But the one diocese that didn’t — the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly — was also the largest, with around half a million members, and most prominent, as it is the see of the Syro-Malabar Church’s major archbishop, or head.

The archeparchy has become a major flashpoint, with the majority of lay people and priests opposing attempts to introduce the unified Mass, despite a direct appeal from Pope Francis to accept the change.

They argue that the liturgy with the priest facing the people throughout is firmly established after more than 50 years of use, is faithful to the liturgical vision of Vatican II, and should be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant.

But both the Vatican and the Synod of Bishops have insisted there is no alternative to accepting the uniform mode.

This week’s gathering follows a May 4 meeting in Rome between Syro-Malabar bishops and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Dicastery for the Eastern Churches prefect Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti. 

According to a May 28 communiqué, the emergency meeting’s main purpose is “to find a solution to the existing problems related to the implementation of the unified Holy Eucharist in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly.”


The path of sanctions

The first option the bishops may be considering is the imposition of sanctions on those who resist the uniform liturgy. 

This approach was hinted at in a Dec. 23 letter to priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy written by the apostolic administrator Archbishop Andrews Thazhath.

Thazhath urged clergy to embrace the changes, saying that the opposition was “crossing all the limits” and protesters could face “disciplinary actions, even from the part of the Holy See.”

Thazhath was likely alluding to the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, the Eastern equivalent of the Code of Canon Law, which sets out penalties for the refusal to submit to decisions by Church authorities.

Resistance to the uniform mode, Thazhath argued, was ultimately disobedience to Pope Francis, who had issued a clear exhortation to accept the new liturgy. Persistence in disobedience could therefore lead to sanctions. 

Opponents of the unified liturgy claim that the Syro-Malabar bishops presented Vatican officials in May with a plan to impose punitive measures on clergy who support the liturgy facing the people. But, they say, the Vatican told them to convene an emergency meeting of the Synod of Bishops instead.

The question is how many members of the synod would be happy to go down the sanctions route. There are persistent rumors that, despite the apparent unanimity on the uniform liturgy, the bishops are divided over the way it should be implemented. 

There is the further question of whether sanctions would be effective. Many priests in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy have declared a boycott of Archbishop Thazhath. The imposition of penalties would be likely to further alienate them, possibly jeopardizing the pastoral care of Catholics across the archeparchy.

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The path of division

Another option being widely discussed is the division of the archeparchy. According to one scenario, part of it could be broken off to create a small diocese for the major archbishop, currently the 78-year-old Cardinal George Alencherry.

While this would diminish the archdiocese’s status, it might have some appeal for opponents of the uniform mode — but only if they were granted their own bishop with full administrative and pastoral powers.

They resent the current system in which they are led, at least nominally, by the major archbishop, who can be selected from any of Syro-Malabar Church’s dioceses, and an apostolic administrator, who also comes from outside of the archeparchy and is responsible for day-to-day governance.

But it’s hard to see why that scenario would appeal to bishops who support the uniform liturgy. Given how many battles they have already fought to introduce the change, they would be unlikely to back greater autonomy for what they regard as a rebellious archeparchy.

But they might be open to a division of the archeparchy if they thought it would dilute resistance to the uniform mode, perhaps by creating a new diocese for the major archbishop but leaving the remainder of the archeparchy under an apostolic administrator determined to introduce the new liturgy.

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The path of dialogue

For a brief moment last November, it seemed as if the authorities had decided to take the path of dialogue to reduce the agitation around the uniform liturgy.

The Church’s permanent synod agreed to form a three-member committee of bishops to discuss the standoff with clergy and lay representatives in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt of Kottayam, Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry, and Bishop José Chittooparambil of Rajkot held a three-hour meeting with the priests and laity on Nov. 25. By all accounts, it was positive, but just two days later, the first clash at the cathedral basilica occurred, derailing the attempt at meditation.

Yet the experiment could be renewed, with further meetings between the three bishops and the archeparchy’s well-organized lay and clerical groups. 

Champions of the uniform liturgy might be wary of this option, because it would mean abandoning any aspiration to introduce the change quickly in the archeparchy. 

The dialogue would likely be slow and difficult, but it would be — to use the current buzzword — synodal, as it would involve both sides “walking together” in search of a long-lasting resolution. 

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The price of indecision

Which way the Synod of Bishops is leaning may become clear June 16, when the emergency meeting ends. 

But there is no guarantee that the synod will be able to find a solution to the dispute in five days when it has failed to do so for the past 25 years. 

If the meeting ends without a decisive result, both sides will eagerly await the next meeting of the synod, scheduled for August. Police will carry on maintaining a presence at the Church’s hotspots, protesters will still stand in the rain outside their shuttered cathedral basilica, and the dispute will continue to monopolize energy that could be spent more fruitfully on building up the Church in the increasingly inhospitable environment of 21st-century India.

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