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Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil met with Pope Francis Monday for the first time since his election as head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in January.

Syro-Malabar Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil meets with Pope Francis in the Vatican’s Consistory Hall on May 13, 2024. Photo courtesy of Vatican Media.

The meeting was a chance for both men to take stock of developments in the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

In an almost 1,500-word address to Thattil, his brother bishops, priests, and Syro-Malabar laity, the pope tackled the most sensitive issue in the Eastern Church: the decades-long dispute over its Eucharistic liturgy.

He also made a surprise announcement concerning the ever-growing number of Syro-Malabar Catholics living outside of the Church’s homeland of India. 

Here’s a quick review of what the pope said, and what it means for the 4 million-strong Eastern Church.

Vigor and vocations

Let’s begin with the positives — and there were plenty. Pope Francis showered his Syro-Malabar visitors with superlatives.

The Eastern Church’s faithful, he said, “are known, not only in India, but throughout the whole world, for the ‘vigor’ of their faith and piety.”

The pope described the Syro-Malabar Church’s history, which it traces back to the missionary travels of St. Thomas the Apostle, as “unique and precious,” as well as “a special heritage for all God’s holy people.”

He also praised Kerala, the Church’s southern Indian heartland, as “a treasure-trove of vocations.”

So, this was a speech that celebrated the vitality of Syro-Malabar Catholicism, rather than dwelling on its current difficulties.

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Devil in the details

But Pope Francis did inevitably address the liturgy dispute that has shaken the Syro-Malabar Church, particularly in recent years.

Tensions within the Eastern Church have risen sharply since the Syro-Malabar Church’s synod of bishops — its highest authority — demanded the introduction of a new “uniform” version of the Syro-Malabar Eucharistic liturgy in all the Eastern Church’s 36 dioceses, with the pope’s support. 

But the synod has faced ferocious resistance in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the Syro-Malabar Church’s most populous and prominent diocese, where the vast majority of lay people and clergy want their version of the Eucharistic liturgy — in which the priest faces toward the people throughout —  recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant. 

The archdiocese has witnessed boycotts, hunger strikes, street brawls, and the burning of cardinals in effigy. Clashes between supporters and opponents of the uniform liturgy in December 2022 led to the shutdown of the archdiocese’s cathedral, which remained closed until March this year.

The pope’s speech showed that he continues to take an uncompromising line on the controversy, insisting that all Syro-Malabar Catholics accept the uniform liturgy.

He characterized the dispute as the work of the devil — “the divider, who truly exists” — rather than as a clash between different liturgical visions held by people of good faith.

He suggested that supporters of the liturgy facing the people throughout were guilty of focusing “on one detail,” and being unwilling to let it go, “even to the detriment of the good of the Church.”

He said that this was an especially grave fault for priests, who have been threatened with canonical penalties if they continue to resist the introduction of the uniform liturgy in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese. 

“Showing a grave lack of respect for the Blessed Sacrament — the Sacrament of charity and unity — by arguing about the details of how to celebrate the Eucharist, the pinnacle of his presence among us, is incompatible with the Christian faith,” the pope said.

“The guiding criterion, the truly spiritual one that derives from the Holy Spirit, is communion: this requires us to do a self-examination of our dedication to unity and our faithful, humble, respectful, and obedient care for the gifts we have received.”

The pope did not, however, close the door on talks that have taken place periodically — and sometimes seemingly productively — between supporters and opponents of the uniform liturgy.

In a passage in which he likened opponents of the uniform liturgy to prodigal sons, he said: “Let us meet and discuss without fear, this is fine, but above all, let us pray, so that the light of the Spirit, which reconciles differences and brings tensions back into unity, may resolve disputes.” 


Middle East pivot

Arguably the most significant news to emerge from Pope Francis’ speech had nothing to do with the liturgy controversy.

It came in a section of his address in which he spoke about his responsibility “to encourage you, the Syro-Malabar Catholic faithful, wherever you are, to cultivate the sense of belonging you have to your Church sui iuris, so that your great liturgical, theological, spiritual and cultural heritage may shine ever more brightly.” 

In common with other Eastern Catholic Churches, the Syro-Malabar Church consists not only of a mother community with ancient roots, but also new communities dotted around the world. 

In the Syro-Malabar Church’s heartland of Kerala, emigration is accelerating. As a result, the Eastern Church is becoming increasingly a diaspora Church, with youngsters leaving India for countries such as Australia, Ireland, the U.K., and the U.S. 

Many are also heading to economically buoyant parts of the Middle East, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Until now, Syro-Malabar Catholics living in the region have been under the jurisdiction of the Latin Church’s Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, covering Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, and Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, responsible for Oman, the UAE, and Yemen.

When they were formed in 2011 from the Apostolic Vicariate of Arabia, the apostolic vicariates oversaw pastoral care for all Catholics in the region, though a significant proportion of the local flock belonged to Eastern Catholic Churches.

In 2020, Pope Francis gave six Eastern Catholic patriarchal churches — the Coptic, Maronite, Syriac, Melkite, Chaldean, and Armenian Catholic churches — jurisdiction over their faithful in the Arabian Peninsula.

Unlike those Churches, the Syro-Malabar Church is led by a major archbishop, rather than a patriarch.

But in his May 13 speech, Pope Francis unexpectedly announced that he had told Thattil “to ask for jurisdiction with regard to all your migrants in so many parts of the Middle East.” 

“I said that they have to ask for jurisdiction in writing, but I have given it today and they can already exercise it,” the pope explained.

While the move is yet to be formalized, it could have significant consequences for Catholicism in the Middle East. 

It’s likely to lead to a strengthening of pastoral support tailored to the needs of local Syro-Malabar Catholics. It could also lead to greater differentiation between the Syro-Malabar faithful and other kinds of Catholics. 

As AsiaNews noted May 13, the question of whether Eastern Catholic Churches should have jurisdiction over their expanding flocks in the Middle East “emerged forcefully” at the 2010 Middle East synod in Rome.

But the matter was not resolved then because, AsiaNews said, it “clashed with the need to maintain unity between the different communities which in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait or Bahrain form a unique and unprecedented face of the Church migrant.”

But in 2024, Pope Francis believes that the time is right for the Syro-Malabar Church also to have jurisdiction over its faithful in the region.

That’s one measure of his trust in an Eastern Church that he clearly thinks can play an important role in the renewal of the Catholic Church as a whole.

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