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Who’s responsible for ending the Syro-Malabar liturgy impasse?

In an interview published this week, the new head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church seemed to downplay the liturgical dispute within the Eastern Church based in India.

Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil at his January 2024 enthronement as leader of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Screenshot from @SyroMalabarChurch YouTube channel.

“There is a controversy, but that controversy, according to me, is a little bit exaggerated by the media, especially social media,” Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil told Vatican News.

But he conceded that there had been “a little difficulty” in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the most populous Syro-Malabar diocese, where the liturgy controversy has prompted street brawls, the burning of cardinals in effigy, and tussles in church sanctuaries.

“This is a temporary controversy which can be settled by amicable discussions and friendly approaches and things like that,” the Major Archbishop said with admirable sangfroid.

But Thattil also offered an interesting aside. He noted that one of the difficulties related to the liturgy dispute in Ernakulam-Angamaly is that “this diocese at present is under the care of a pontifical delegate, Cyril Vasil’, and they [also] have an apostolic administrator.”

The remark highlighted the large cast of figures currently involved in the dispute. Before we offer a quick who’s who, it’s worth spelling out why this is significant. 

There’s a business maxim that if you want something to be done, you have to make a specific person responsible for ensuring its completion. If you fail to make clear who is responsible, the task likely won’t be accomplished because everyone will assume it’s someone else’s responsibility. 

Who’s responsible for resolving the Syro-Malabar liturgy dispute? It’s a simple question, yet surprisingly hard to answer. Let’s consider the possibilities.


The major archbishop

Pope Francis signaled a shake-up of the Syro-Malabar Church on Dec. 7, 2023, when he accepted the resignation of Cardinal George Alencherry, who had led the Eastern Church since 2011.

His successor, Major Archbishop Thattil, was elected Jan. 9. That day, Thattil took over responsibility for the roughly 5 million Syro-Malabar Catholics worldwide. 

But the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church also has a specific responsibility: he’s the metropolitan archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the archeparchy at the heart of the liturgy dispute.

So you might think that Thattil is the obvious person responsible for resolving the controversy, but it’s not so simple.

The Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops

Thattil alone is not the highest authority in the Syro-Malabar Church. The supreme authority within the Eastern Church is, in fact, the Major Archbishop acting together with the Synod of Bishops (an assembly of all Syro-Malabar bishops). 

It was the Synod of Bishops that decided in 2021 that all Syro-Malabar dioceses needed to adopt a new “uniform” version of the Eucharistic liturgy, which is known as the Holy Qurbana. 

The uniform mode sought to reconcile two different ways of celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy in the Syro-Malabar Church: one in which the priest faced East throughout (ad orientem) and another in which the priest faced 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.

But supporters of the liturgy facing the people throughout — who include most priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy — have questioned whether the synod’s instruction to adopt the new liturgy was as unanimous as it was presented. 

At the end of 2021, a group of six retired Syro-Malabar bishops wrote a confidential 10-page letter to their brother bishops, copied to Vatican officials, in which they complained that the synod’s decision “was not, in fact, unanimous,” though “some tried to create the impression” that it was. 

The letter alleged that the decision to implement the uniform mode “was not reached through proper, mandatory consultations, and transparent procedures” and was therefore “a cause of disunity in the Church.” 

So, is the Synod of Bishops responsible for resolving the controversy? As the Eastern Church’s top authority, you might think so. But with so many members, it has seemed unwieldy, somewhat divided, and slow to respond to sudden developments in the dispute.

A more nimble body is the Permanent Synod, which consists of the Major Archbishop and five other senior bishops. Its role is “to help the Major Archbishop in matters of ordinary administration or in expediting urgent affairs.”

But while the Permanent Synod can take quick decisions, it doesn’t appear to have used its powers to seize the initiative in resolving the liturgy controversy. 

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The apostolic administrator

Amid an outcry over property deals conducted by the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, Cardinal Alencherry was obliged to step back from the day-to-day governance of the archeparchy, which was overseen by an apostolic administrator in 2018-19.

Although Alencherry was cleared to return, the Vatican appointed a new apostolic administrator in 2022, with a mandate to introduce the uniform liturgy in the restive archeparchy. But he only seemed to inflame the crisis. 

On Dec. 7, 2023, Pope Francis accepted the apostolic administrator’s resignation and appointed a new one: Bishop Bosco Puthur, a retired bishop who served latterly in Australia.

Puthur is arguably the bishop in closest daily contact with the priests and people of Ernakulam-Angamaly. That gives him a unique insight into the mood within the archeparchy and a sense of the possibilities for reconciliation. 

And yet, an apostolic administrator is only a temporary figure, answerable to people higher up the hierarchy. So Puthur does not seem to be the person responsible for solving the dispute, either.

The papal delegate

Perhaps that’s the papal delegate, Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, who was appointed to the role in July 2023.

The Slovak Jesuit served as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches from 2009 to 2020, so he’s well-versed in the issues. 

But during an August 2023 visit to the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy, he took a highly confrontational approach toward supporters of the versus populum liturgy, telling them that they were either “with the pope, or against him.”

“Are you with the Holy Father? Do you wish to remain priests and members of the Catholic Church and of your Syro-Malabar Church,” asked Vasil’, who leads the Slovak Greek Catholic Church’s Eparchy of Košice. 

“Or do you wish to give preference to the voice of troublemakers who lead you towards disobedience to the Holy Father to the legitimate pastors of your Syro-Malabar Church and to the Catholic Church?” 

Vasil’ told priests and laity that they risked canonical penalties, including excommunication, if they continued to resist the uniform liturgy. But they still defied a deadline to adopt the new liturgy — seemingly without incurring any penalties to date.

After his India visit, Vasil’ returned to his ministry in Slovakia. So evidently, he’s not the person primarily responsible for resolving the controversy, either. 

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The Vatican prefect

Another important player in the dispute is the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches, which oversees Rome’s relationships with the 23 sui iuris (autonomous) Eastern Catholic Churches.

Cardinal Claudio Gugerotti has led the dicastery since January 2023. He’s adopted a relatively low profile in the Syro-Malabar liturgy dispute, but serves as conduit between Pope Francis and the Syro-Malabar Church. 

But this middleman role means that he’s not the individual responsible for resolving the dispute. At most, his role is to ensure effective communication between the Church leaders enmeshed in the controversy.

The pope

In the end, doesn’t ultimate responsibility for resolving the crisis lie with the pope, who by virtue of his office “possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church”?

Yes, it does. But there are a lot of other things that the pope is also responsible for. It’s not as if he can block out days in his calendar to address the rift. 

Also, the Syro-Malabar Church is a sui iuris Church. While it’s in communion with the pope and under his authority, it’s also autonomous. Is it the pope’s job to sort out what is, after all, a localized argument? Isn’t the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops designed precisely for issues such as this?

In a May 13 address to a delegation of Syro-Malabar Catholics led by Major Archbishop Thattil, Pope Francis stressed the Eastern Church’s freedom (and perhaps also its responsibility) to address its own challenges.

“I wish to help you, not supersede you, because the nature of your Church sui iuris empowers you not only to examine carefully the situations and challenges that you face, but also to take appropriate steps to address them, with responsibility and evangelical courage, remaining faithful to the guidance of the Major Archbishop and the Synod,” he said.

“This is what the Church wants, for apart from Peter, apart from the Major Archbishop, there is no Church.”

Given the overlapping spheres of responsibilities, don’t be surprised if the Syro-Malabar Church’s decades-long liturgy dispute has a few years to run yet.

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