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Syro-Malabar protestors burn archbishop’s liturgy letter

Opponents of a new uniform liturgy in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church burned copies of an ultimatum issued by an archbishop Sunday.

Protesters in India’s Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese burn letters issued by apostolic administrator Archbishop Andrews Thazhath on June 25, 2023. Courtesy photo.

Demonstrators in India’s Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly set light to a June 22 decree written by apostolic administrator Archbishop Andrews Thazhath.

The decree said that the vicar and parish council of the archdiocese’s cathedral would be removed if they continued to block the celebration of the “uniform mode” of the Syro-Malabar Eucharistic liturgy, which is known as the Holy Qurbana.


Videos showed protesters destroying copies of the decree outside churches, including St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, which has been closed since December after clashes between supporters and opponents of the new liturgy.

The June 22 decree was followed by a June 23 letter to officials at a minor seminary in the archdiocese, which said that the liturgy should only be celebrated in the new format. 

“Disobeying this order will be violation of ecclesiastical laws. If any of the priests in the minor seminary … are not ready to follow this directive, he shall inform me of it within 10 days and he shall be relieved from his office in the seminary and be transferred to another office,” Thazhath wrote.

The Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese is at the heart of resistance against efforts to introduce the unified mode. The dispute has been marked by street brawls, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy.

The uniform mode is a compromise between the Syro-Malabar Church’s ancient tradition, in which the priest faced east (ad orientem), and the post-Vatican II practice where the priest is positioned toward the people throughout the liturgy (versus populum). 

In the unified mode, 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. 

Despite a direct appeal from Pope Francis to adopt the new mode, the vast majority of priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese reject the change and want their preference for the liturgy facing the people to be recognized as a legitimate variant.

Protesters outside St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, India, prepare to burn letters issued by apostolic administrator Archbishop Andrews Thazhath on June 25, 2023. Courtesy photo.

An emergency meeting of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops was held June 12-16 to discuss the liturgical crisis in the archdiocese. It followed a May 4 meeting in Rome between senior Syro-Malabar bishops and the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Dicastery for the Eastern Churches prefect Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti. 

Following the emergency meeting, Syro-Malabar leader Cardinal George Alencherry noted that the Church’s other 34 dioceses, or eparchies, had embraced the change.

“This decision has led all other eparchies towards greater unity and to alter it would lead to anarchy in the Church,” he wrote in a June 16 circular letter.

He added that Pope Francis had agreed to consider a request from the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops to appoint a papal delegate for the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, “to facilitate further dialogue and to rectify the anti-ecclesial dispositions, while convincing them the importance of ‘walking together’ (synodality).”

There are rumors in the archdiocese that the papal delegate will be the Canadian Archbishop Michael Mulhall. In 2015, the Vatican appointed Mulhall to study tensions in the Knanaya Catholic diaspora. The Knanaya are a community based in India that practices strict endogamy. Its members belong to the Syro-Malabar Church, the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome, as well as other Christian communions. 

In his June 22 decree, Archbishop Thazhath set out the consequences if cathedral officials and parish council members continued to resist the introduction of the uniform liturgy.

He said that the cathedral vicar Msgr. Antony Nariculam should ensure that the basilica reopened by July 2, the day before the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, who is regarded as the Syro-Malabar Church’s founder.

“Holy Qurbana in the basilica can be celebrated only as per the synodal decision of uniform mode. Until that is possible, Holy Qurbana shall not be celebrated there. You and [the basilica’s administrator] shall make sure that Holy Qurbana in the uniform mode is started in the basilica at the earliest,” Thazhath told Nariculam.

He continued: “You shall inform the parish council members of their violations of the laws of the Church and that if the members do not obey within 10 days, the parish council will either be freezed/suspended or dissolved without further notice.”

The lay organization Almaya Munnettam has called for a protest in front of the basilica July 2, the day of Thazhath’s deadline.

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