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Syro-Malabar Church leaders in India announced Sunday that clergy who refuse to adopt a new form of the Eucharistic liturgy by July 3 will be considered to be in schism and barred from priestly ministry.

Opponents of the Syro-Malabar Church’s uniform liturgy discuss their response to the June 9 joint circular letter. Courtesy photo.

Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, the new head of the Syro-Malabar Church, and Bishop Bosco Puthur, the apostolic administrator of the tinderbox Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, presented the ultimatum in a June 9 joint circular letter.


The Syro-Malabar Church is the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the pope after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and has a growing presence outside of India, in countries such as Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.

Although the Church authorities have tried several times to settle the decades-long liturgy dispute by imposing a deadline for compliance, the new letter took observers of the Syro-Malabar Church by surprise because it was released days before a meeting of the Eastern Church’s bishops called to discuss the controversy.

Adding to the sense of intrigue, the letter’s publication was preceded by the leak of a draft text dated June 15, the day after the online meeting of the Syro-Malabar Synod of Bishops, the sui iuris Church’s highest authority. 

In their sharply worded four-page letter dated June 9, Major Archbishop Thattil and Bishop Puthur set out the consequences of failing to embrace the new “uniform” liturgy before the deadline, which falls on the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, who is considered the Syro-Malabar Church’s founder. 

“You are formally informed that priests who do not comply with this final instruction of ours and who celebrate the Holy Eucharist after July 3 in a manner different from the uniform liturgy will be considered to have left the communion of the Catholic Church,” they wrote, canonically defining failure to comply as schism and carrying a penalty of excommunication. 

“These priests will be barred from priestly ministry in the Catholic Church from July 4, 2024, without further warning.”

It remains to be seen if this new threat of canonical sanction for breach of communion will be carried through after similar warnings were disregarded.

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Thattil and Puthur said that priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy studying or serving outside of the archeparchy, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, must send a written statement confirming they will use the uniform mode.

“Those who do not give the said oath within the specified time will be banned from priestly ministry in the Catholic Church without further warning,” the circular said. 

“This will be reported for further action to the authorities of the places where these priests are serving or studying.”

The letter, written in Malayalam, also said that lay people would not fulfill their Sunday obligation by attending Eucharistic liturgies offered by priests “who defy the pope and are excommunicated from the Church.”

It added: “Marriages performed by priests prohibited by the Church from performing priestly services will be void. Priests who are not approved by the diocese cannot manage parishes and institutions or legally represent them.”

Candidates for the priesthood in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy must also declare in writing that they accept the uniform liturgy.

The letter provoked an immediate backlash from opponents of the uniform liturgy, who represent the overwhelming majority of priests and lay people in the archeparchy.

A video shared on messaging apps showed a copy of the circular letter being set alight — a common form of protest against the uniform liturgy.

The June 9 circular letter is set alight in a video shared on messaging apps.

Riju Kanjookaran, a spokesman for the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency, which opposes the new liturgy, told UCA News June 10: “Let me make it very clear we are not going to accept the Synod-approved Mass.”

He added: “This is an arbitrary decision taken without consulting our priests and lay leaders, and nobody is bound to comply with it.” 

Thattil and Puthur recalled in their joint circular that Pope Francis received Syro-Malabar leaders at the Vatican May 13.

In an address, the pope praised the “glorious legacy” of the roughly 5 million-strong Eastern Church.

“You are obedient, and where obedience is present, there is the Church,” the pope said. “Where there is disobedience, there is schism.”

In their joint circular, Thattil and Puthur highlighted papal letters issued in July 2021 and March 2022, and a December 2023 papal video message supporting the uniform liturgy.

They wrote: “The Holy Father’s paternal heart has been deeply hurt by the fact that the clear instructions given twice in writing and once in a video message regarding the implementation of the unified Holy Eucharist were ignored.” 

“In the meeting with the bishops and the speech that followed, the Holy Father clearly stated that the position of the disobedient is outside of the congregation.” 

“We lovingly request once again of all the priests, consecrated people, and lay members of the archeparchy that you understand and obey these words of the pope, the head of the Catholic Church, with complete seriousness.”

Thattil and Puthur said that following the meetings with the pope and Vatican officials, all the Syro-Malabar Church’s 36 dioceses were still obliged to accept the uniform liturgy, as requested in August 2021 by the Synod of Bishops.

The uniform mode seeks to reconcile two different ways of celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy in the Syro-Malabar Church: one in which the priest faces East throughout (ad orientem) and another 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 then faces the people again after Communion.

The synod has faced fierce resistance in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy — the Syro-Malabar Church’s most populous and prominent diocese — where most priests and laity want the version of the Eucharistic liturgy in which the priest faces toward the people throughout to be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant. 

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. The archeparchy has also seen boycotts, hunger strikes, street brawls, and the burning of cardinals in effigy

The threat of canonical penalties has hung over the archeparchy’s approximately 400 diocesan priests since an August 2023 visit to India by papal delegate Archbishop Cyril Vasil’. 

Vasil’ told supporters of the versus populum liturgy that they risked penalties including excommunication if they continued to resist the uniform liturgy. But they defied his deadline to adopt the new liturgy.

Concluding their joint letter, Thattil and Puthur wrote: “This issue has been made so complicated by the un-ecclesial and irrational strictness adopted by a few priests and laity, and the never-acceptable slogans and bad propaganda.” 

“No longer will anyone be allowed to remain in the Catholic Church community by challenging the Church system and the Church authorities and not following ecclesiastical discipline. That is why we are forced to enter into strict measures.”

They added: “We strongly urge that not a single one of you should leave the communion of the Holy Catholic Church by believing the words of a few priests and other persons with vested interests, as Pope Francis called for in his video message.” 

“In the name of God, we beseech you all to remain united with our Mother, the Holy Catholic Church, with the head of the Church, the Holy Father, with the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, and with our Catholic heritage formed over millennia.”

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