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The bishops of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church gathered in southern India Monday to begin the process of electing a new leader.

Cardinal George Alencherry attends the episcopal ordination of Mar Joseph Srampickal in Preston, England, on Oct. 9, 2016. © Mazur/

The title of Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly fell vacant Dec. 7, when Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the 78-year-old Cardinal George Alencherry, the ex officio head of the autonomous Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with Rome since 2011.


In a Jan. 4 farewell message to his flock, Alencherry acknowledged the difficulties of his 12-year tenure, expressing regret for what he called “the shortcomings in my mission.” 

The next major archbishop will be responsible for a community that is at once dynamic and bitterly divided. The second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has abundant vocations and a strong global profile, thanks to emigration from India. At the same time, it has seen violent clashes over moves to establish a uniform Eucharistic liturgy.  

But what is the process for electing a new major archbishop? Who is being talked about as a possible successor to Cardinal Alencherry? And what will happen after a candidate is elected?

How does the election work?

Fifty-three members of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops — the Eastern Church’s authoritative governing body — gathered for the voting Jan. 8 at the St. Thomas Mount church headquarters in Kakkanad, near the port city of Kochi (formerly known as Cochin).

At 10 a.m., the bishops began a day of prayer and meditation that included the celebration of the Syro-Malabar Eucharistic liturgy, known as the Holy Qurbana, Eucharistic Adoration, and the rosary. The 32nd Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church was officially inaugurated when the bishops proceeded from the church to the synod hall, following evening prayer.

The voting for a new major archbishop will take place behind closed doors, with periods for reflection and discernment. The gathering is expected to conclude Saturday, Jan. 13. 

As the Syro-Malabar Church awaits its new leader, Bishop Sebastian Vaniyapurackal, the Curial Bishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, is responsible for governing the Eastern Church. His role as administrator will cease with the election of a new major archbishop.

Who are the likely candidates?

Observers suggest that age is likely to be a determining factor in the election of the new major archbishop. 

Alencherry was 66 years old when he was elected, giving him roughly a decade as head of the Syro-Malabar Church. His predecessor, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, was 72 years old when he was appointed, but served until his death at the age of 83.

If the pattern holds, then the ideal candidate could be someone able to serve for around 10 years.

The following bishops have been named in the Indian media as possible candidates:

👉 Bishop Thomas Tharayil
The auxiliary bishop of the Archeparchy of Changanacherry is a well-known psychologist and retreat leader. He has taught at major seminaries and written books on psychology. He knows Malayalam, English, German, Italian, and Spanish.

According to the New Indian Express, he is a leading candidate because he is seen as acceptable to different sections of the highly polarized Eastern Church. But his age is likely to count against him. He was born in 1972, making him just 51 years old. He was only ordained a priest in the year 2000 and a bishop in 2017.

The Archeparchy of Changanacherry is one of India’s largest Catholic dioceses in terms of area, covering parts of the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Tharayil is the sole auxiliary supporting the 75-year-old Archbishop Joseph Perumthottam.

👉 Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt 
Also described as a frontrunner is the 67-year-old Bishop of Palai, an eparchy in central Kerala with more than 300,000 faithful. Kallarangatt has led the eparchy since 2004, making him an experienced leader. He is a renowned scholar who has published more than 40 books on theological and liturgical topics

He was chairman of the doctrinal commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) from 2010 to 2018. He is currently chairman of the Syro-Malabar synodal commission for family, laity, and life.

👉 Archbishop Joseph Pamplany 
The Archbishop of Thalassery (Tellicherry) is just 54 years old. He was appointed as an auxiliary bishop in 2017 and charged with leading the Archeparchy of Tellicherry in 2022. The archeparchy is based in Kerala and serves almost 300,000 Catholics.

Pamplany hit the headlines in 2023 for reportedly suggesting that he could galvanize support for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) if the government paid local farmers a higher price for rubber. His reported remarks were controversial as the BJP has a Hindu nationalist ideology and a relatively weak presence in Kerala. 

He has said that his comments were misinterpreted and he later criticized India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s response to violence against Christians in the state of Manipur.

👉 Bishop Sebastian Vaniyapurackal 
The 56-year-old Vaniyapurackal has served in the administrative role of Curial Bishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly since 2017. He is the second person to hold the title, which he was given while serving as vice chancellor of the Syro-Malabar Church’s major archiepiscopal curia at Mount St. Thomas.

His appointment as administrator of the Eastern Church after Alencherry’s Dec. 7 resignation has increased his visibility considerably.

👉 Bishop Sebastian Adayanthrath
The 66-year-old Bishop of Mandya served as an auxiliary bishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly from 2002 to 2019. He was born in Vaikom, Ernakulam, in 1957 and ordained a priest for the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy in 1983. So, he is deeply familiar with the major archbishop’s archeparchy. 

The Eparchy of Mandya is based in Karnataka state, southwestern India, and serves around 90,000 Catholics.

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The following two bishops have been mentioned by Syro-Malabar Catholics but not the Indian media:

👉 Archbishop Andrews Thazhath
The 72-year-old Archbishop of Thrissur (Trichur) served until Dec. 7 as the apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly. During his brief but turbulent time in the role, he pushed the archeparchy’s priests and lay people to accept the new uniform liturgy. 

His Archeparchy of Thrissur, based in central Kerala, serves more than 400,000 Catholics. Thazhath, an expert on canon law governing Eastern Churches, was elected president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) in 2022. He knows German, Italian, Latin, in addition to English and Malayalam. 

👉 Bishop Joseph Srampickal
A relative outsider is the 56-year-old head of the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Great Britain. Srampickal is the first leader of the eparchy, which was founded in 2016 and serves around 41,000 Catholics

The Oxford-educated prelate, who speaks English, German,  Italian, and Malayalam, was ordained a bishop in an English soccer stadium before a crowd of more than 12,000 people. Under his leadership, Syro-Malabar Catholics are playing an increasingly prominent role in British Catholic life.

What happens next?

While the Syro-Malabar Church is autonomous, it is also in full communion with Rome. Therefore, the candidate chosen by the Eastern Church’s Synod of Bishops must also be approved by the pope. 

This process is normally smooth. Cardinal Alencherry for example, received approval the day after his selection. 

The new major archbishop is likely to travel to Rome not long after his election to meet with the pope. Alencherry was received by Pope Benedict XVI a few months after his appointment in 2011.

In an address, the German pope praised the “encouraging signs of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life” in the Syro-Malabar Church, as well as its “pastoral outreach” to Syro-Malabar Catholics living outside of India.

It will be the daunting task of Alencherry’s successor to maintain the Eastern Church’s growth, while seeking to heal its deep internal divisions.

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