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Syro-Malabar leaders to discuss lasting peace for ‘liturgy war’ at Vatican

Indian Catholic leaders and Vatican officials are expected to discuss the Syro-Malabar Church’s liturgical crisis in Rome this week.

Parishioners take part in a Way of the Cross outside the closed St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, India, on Good Friday, April 7, 2023. Courtesy photo.

The meeting was announced May 1 by Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the autonomous Eastern Catholic Church based in southern India.

In a letter to Syro-Malabar Catholics, Alencherry said that members of the Church’s Permanent Synod will hold discussions May 4 with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Dicastery for the Eastern Churches prefect Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti. 

Alencherry explained that his delegation would address the situation in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly “in view of finding a lasting solution to the present deadlock.” 

“I request you to pray earnestly for the success of the meeting so that together we would be able to take effective steps to find a lasting solution to the problematic situation in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly,” wrote the 78-year-old cardinal, who is the Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly but not responsible for the archeparchy’s day-to-day running.

The cardinal said that accompanying him to Rome would be Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, Archbishop Joseph Perumthottam, and Archbishop Joseph Pamplany.

Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy — the largest and most prominent see in the Syro-Malabar Church — is the main flashpoint in a decades-long “liturgy war” marked by street brawls, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy.

The controversy took a grave new turn shortly before Christmas, when rival groups clashed inside the archeparchy’s cathedral. In the melee, the altar was dragged across the sanctuary by protesters, sending sacred vessels crashing to the ground. 

St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam was cleared by police and shut down, forcing parishioners to celebrate Christmas elsewhere. The continued closure of the cathedral, known as the mother church of Syro-Malabar Catholics, is being challenged in India’s courts.

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Divisions over a unified liturgy

The liturgical dispute is rooted in the Syro-Malabar Church’s dual identity as an Eastern Catholic Church with an ancient East Syriac Rite liturgy and a body that experienced centuries of Latinization and has strong ties to Rome. 

In the 20th century, a movement arose seeking to establish a single, unified mode of celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy, known as the Holy Qurbana.

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. 

Advocates presented the new mode — also known as the “50:50 formula” — as a 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 accepted the change. After the Synod of Bishops — the Church’s supreme body — appealed in August 2021 for the universal adoption of the uniform mode, 34 out of 35 dioceses heeded the request, with sporadic opposition.

But in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy, the vast majority of priests and lay people rejected the uniform mode, demanding that their preference for the Holy Qurbana facing the people be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant.

They noted that the variant has been used in the archdiocese for more than 50 years and argued that it embodied Vatican II’s liturgical priorities more faithfully than the uniform mode.

Their resistance, involving street protests and mass rallies, thwarted attempts to introduce the change, despite a direct appeal by Pope Francis to adopt the uniform mode.

Clashes at the cathedral

Tensions soared in the archeparchy in July 2022, when Archbishop Andrews Thazhath was appointed apostolic administrator. He succeeded the locally respected archiepiscopal vicar of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archbishop Antony Kariyil, who claimed he was forced to step aside after dispensing the archeparchy’s priests from adopting the new mode.

In a circular letter in September 2022, Thazhath appealed to parishes to adopt the uniform liturgy as soon as possible. Protesters responded by publicly burning copies of the letter and around 250 priests declared the archbishop “unfit” to govern the archeparchy.

On the First Sunday of Advent, the start of a new liturgical year, Thazhath attempted to enter Ernakulam’s cathedral to celebrate the liturgy according to the 50:50 formula. But protesters blocked him at the cathedral gates. 

Thazhath, who was elected president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) last November, was granted police protection, claiming that he had reason to fear for his life.

Following further clashes at the cathedral just before Christmas, Thazhath announced the creation of a commission to investigate the disturbances. It is understood that a report has been sent to the Vatican, which is said to be taking the cathedral incidents very seriously.

The scenes at the cathedral undermined a reconciliation effort led by three bishops — Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt, Archbishop Joseph Pamplany, and Bishop José Chittooparambil — who were asked by the Church’s permanent synod to hold discussions with clergy and lay representatives in the archeparchy.

Thazhath has continued to meet with resistance in 2023. His position that the cathedral can reopen as soon as its clergy are willing to celebrate the uniform liturgy has angered locals, who insist priests should be free to celebrate the Holy Qurbana facing the people.


Rumors of a split

It is unclear if members of the permanent synod will bring a specific proposal for resolving the crisis to Thursday’s Vatican meeting. 

Local rumors claim there is a plan to divide the archdiocese. One version suggests that part of the archeparchy could be broken off to create a small diocese for the Major Archbishop, Cardinal Alencherry, significantly altering the archeparchy’s status within the Syro-Malabar Church. 

Such a move would be hugely controversial as it would raise questions about property ownership in an archeparchy where the sale of church land has led to the loss of a reputed $10 million and proceedings in India’s civil courts.

Alencherry’s May 1 letter twice mentioned the goal of finding a “lasting solution” to the crisis. But it is difficult to see how a resolution can be found while both sides express absolute commitment to achieving irreconcilable aims.

Pope Francis, the Vatican, and the archeparchy’s apostolic administrator insist that clergy and laity must accept the uniform mode. The majority of priests and lay people in the archeparchy say that nothing less than permanent permission to celebrate the liturgy facing the people is acceptable.

The Vatican meeting will offer an early test for Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, who recently succeeded the long-serving Cardinal Leonardo Sandri as prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches. Gugerotti has written books about Eastern liturgies and is expected to take a close interest in the dispute.

Cardinal Parolin’s presence at the meeting is likely an indication of how somberly the Vatican views the dispute. His involvement indicates that the issue has reached the pope’s door and the Vatican is eager to defuse the conflict. 

In an April 29 article in the Indian Catholic weekly Light of Truth, writer P.T. Kuriakose noted that the dispute went far beyond which direction priests should face during the liturgy.

It is also “a conflict between the Synod’s authority on the one hand and obedience by priests and laity on the other,” he wrote.

He nevertheless expressed hopes that it “still can be sorted out if all concerned sit together and escape from their self-imposed postures and work out a solution that will bring back peace in the Syro-Malabar Church.”

The Vatican meeting may be a turning point in the Syro-Malabar Church’s liturgy war. It could mark the start of a new effort at conciliation — or perhaps a new escalation in one of 21st-century Catholicism’s bitterest conflicts.

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