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Five Syro-Malabar bishops have expressed their firm opposition to a threat to excommunicate Indian Catholics who fail to accept a new liturgy by July 3, amid reports of a breakthrough in the long-running dispute.

Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Faridabad in India, and one of the five signatories of a ‘dissent note’. Screenshot from @truthtidings4759 YouTube channel.

The group said in a June 13 letter to Syro-Malabar leader Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil that the threat against priests in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly was reminiscent of the Middle Ages. 


In their leaked four-page “dissent note,” the bishops also questioned why the ultimatum was issued suddenly before a June 14 online meeting of the Synod of Bishops — the Syro-Malabar Church’s supreme authority — called to discuss the liturgy dispute.

The five bishops, who have strong ties to the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy, suggested that the ultimatum undermined the Synod of Bishops.

They wrote that Pope Francis had told Major Archbishop Thattil at the Vatican in May that “yours is a sui iuris [autonomous] Church and the problem should be solved by yourselves in the synod.” 

“But, to our great dismay, such a serious circular was issued without seeking the opinion of the scheduled online synod,” they said. 

“We, as members of the synod, had the responsibility given by the Holy Father to look at this issue collectively and come up with a viable solution. How is it possible that such a serious decision that would have derived from the synod, was already prepared in advance before the synod?”

The June 14 online meeting was inconclusive, so the Synod of Bishops resumed its discussions June 19. After the second meeting, there were reports of a surprise breakthrough in negotiations between Syro-Malabar leaders and opponents of the new “uniform” liturgy.

An unnamed bishop told UCA News: “Subject to the Vatican’s approval, the dispute is settled. The breakthrough came after both sides agreed to accommodate each other. The official announcement will be made in a day or two.”

The priest explained that Ernakulam-Angamaly’s clergy would be permitted to continue celebrating their preferred form of the Eucharistic liturgy, but would also have to celebrate one uniform liturgy in their parishes every Sunday.

“Those who go against this instruction will be disciplined as per the canon law,” he commented.

The agreement has reportedly been submitted to Vatican officials and Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, who was named papal delegate to the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy in July 2023.

Fr. Joyce Kaithakottil, a priest of the archeparchy, confirmed that an agreement had been reached, but said that the wording of any official announcement would be critical. He noted that previous tentative agreements had collapsed before they could be implemented.

“We are on the point of reaching a compromise, but how they would formulate the statement is a question,” he told The Pillar June 21.

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The Syro-Malabar Church is the biggest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the pope after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and has a growing worldwide diaspora.

In August 2021, the Synod of Bishops asked all of the Syro-Malabar Church’s 35 eparchies (dioceses) to accept the introduction of the new Eucharistic liturgy.

The uniform mode brings together two different ways of celebrating the Eucharist in the Syro-Malabar Church: the ancient one in which the priest faces East throughout (ad orientem) and a 20th-century mode in which the priest faces the people throughout (versus populum).

A priest celebrating according to the uniform mode — also known as the “50:50 formula” — faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and faces the people again after Communion.

The new liturgy was adopted with sporadic resistance in 34 out of the 35 Syro-Malabar eparchies but has faced implacable opposition in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly,  the Syro-Malabar Church’s most populous and prominent diocese.

The majority of the archeparchy’s 655,000 members want their version of the liturgy, in which the priest faces toward the people throughout, to be recognized as a legitimate variant. 

Amid the liturgy dispute, the archeparchy has witnessed boycotts, hunger strikes, street brawls, 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 remained closed until March this year. 

There were renewed protests last weekend in response to the June 9 circular letter written jointly by Major Archbishop Thattil and Bishop Bosco Puthur, the apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy.

The two leaders said that if the archeparchy’s priests failed to celebrate the new liturgy by July 3, they “will be considered to have left the communion of the Catholic Church.” 

When the deadline passes, the priests could be deemed to be in schism, which carries a penalty of excommunication, and formally barred from priestly ministry.

The five Syro-Malabar bishops who signed the “dissent note” argued that the threat of excommunication was foreign to the Eastern Church’s tradition.

“Ecclesiastical sanctions should be proportionate to the violation,” they wrote. “Where is the place for the medicinal character of ecclesiastical punishment which the Oriental  code [of canon law] is famous for?” 

They added: “Can we as shepherds impose on our faithful something that will weigh on their conscience for a matter of not following a mere rubric, which is not part of the faith and morals? Can we claim to be good pastors after the model of the Lord who is the Good Shepherd?” 

“The resistance regarding the implementation of the rubric, in no way, we justify. Still, what we feel is that we have to take a benevolent approach in implementing it. Wherever possible, it should be implemented, but taking the priests and people into  confidence.”

The five bishops’ intervention is not the first time that a group of Syro-Malabar bishops has expressed reservations about the approach of the Eastern Church’s leadership to the liturgy controversy.

At the end of 2021, six retired bishops wrote a confidential 10-page letter to their brother Syro-Malabar bishops, copied to Vatican officials. 

The six bishops complained that the Synod of Bishops’ decision that year to set a deadline for the implementation of the uniform liturgy in all eparchies “was not, in fact, unanimous,” though “some tried to create the impression” that it was. 

The new letter has added significance because it was signed by active, rather than retired bishops: Bishop Ephrem Nariculam, 63, head of the Eparchy of Chanda; Bishop Jose Chittooparambil, C.M.I., 69, head of the Eparchy of Rajkot; Bishop Jose Puthenveettil, 63, an auxiliary bishop of the Eparchy of Faridabad; Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, 65, head of the Eparchy of Faridabad; and Bishop Sebastian Adayanthrath, 69, head of the Eparchy of Mandya. 

“The big question is who has masterminded the whole process?” they wrote to Major Archbishop Thattil. “Should we the members of the Synod remain simply silent spectators? Does the Major Archbishop as Father and Head of the Church have any space in such decision-making? Or are he and the Synodal fathers mere witnesses?” 

“It seems that Your Beatitude is under great pressure from certain corners. You seem to be getting no space or only little space to put into action, the direction given by the Holy Father and the amicable way you want to resolve this issue.”

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