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Where things stand in the Syro-Malabar ‘liturgy war’

Shortly before Christmas, protestors inside a cathedral in southern India dragged the altar across the sanctuary, sending sacred vessels crashing to the ground.

A standoff between administrator Fr. Antony Puthuvelil and priests celebrating Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy facing the people at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, India, on Dec. 23, 2022.

The long-running “liturgy war” in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church has been punctuated by street brawls, hunger strikes, the burning of pastoral letters, and the immolation of cardinals’ effigies.

But it took an even more shocking turn shortly before Christmas, when rival groups clashed inside a cathedral in southern India. In the melee, the altar was dragged across the sanctuary by protesters, sending sacred vessels crashing to the ground.

St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam was cleared by police and shut down, forcing parishioners to celebrate Christmas elsewhere.

What exactly happened? And where does the clash leave the bitter liturgical dispute?

Sorry, what liturgical dispute?

The Syro-Malabar Church is one of several Christian communities in the southern Indian state of Kerala that traces its origins to St. Thomas the Apostle, often known as “doubting Thomas” because of his demand for physical proof of Christ’s Resurrection.

It is the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the pope, after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, and has dioceses in Australia, Canada, the U.K., and the U.S., as well as India.

It is called “Syro” because it uses the ancient East Syriac Rite liturgy and “Malabar” in reference to its heartland, India’s southwestern Malabar Coast.

While the Church has deep Eastern roots, it also enjoys strong ties to Rome. To simplify its complex history, the Syro-Malabar Church experienced centuries of Latinization then began to rediscover its distinctive Eastern identity.

Despite its gradual recognition by the Vatican as an autonomous Eastern Catholic community, the Syro-Malabar Church lacked a uniform liturgy. Its Eucharistic liturgy, known as the Holy Qurbana, was celebrated in contrasting ways. A movement arose seeking a single, unified mode of the liturgy.

After decades of debate, the majority of bishops endorsed a formula known as the “uniform mode,” in which 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.

They saw the new mode — also known as the “50:50 formula” — as a reasonable compromise between the Church’s ancient tradition, in which the priest was positioned ad orientem (toward the east), and the post-Vatican II practice where the priest faced the people throughout the liturgy.

Most of the Church’s roughly 4 million members agreed. After the Synod of Bishops — the Church’s supreme body — appealed August 2021 for the universal adoption of the “uniform mode,” 34 of its 35 dioceses heeded the request (with sporadic opposition).

But the one diocese that didn’t — the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly — is also the largest, with around half a million members, and most prominent, as it is the see of the Syro-Malabar Church’s major archbishop, or head.

An angry archeparchy

The vast majority of the archeparchy’s priests and lay people refuse to adopt the uniform mode, arguing that their preference for the Holy Qurbana facing the people should be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant.

They point out that the variant has been used in the archdiocese for more than 50 years and argue that it is a better reflection of the liturgical priorities identified at the Second Vatican Council than the uniform mode.

Members of the archdiocese have a reputation for militancy, seen during the “Ernakulum Priests’ Revolt” of 2017-19, when clergy rose up in protest at controversial land deals that allegedly lost the archeparchy $10 million and led to ongoing legal proceedings entangling the major archbishop.

The so-called “land deal scam” eroded trust between members of the archeparchy and Syro-Malabar authorities. When the Synod of Bishops ordered the introduction of the uniform mode — with the support of Pope Francis — priests and lay people in Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese were so alienated from their senior leadership that they took to the streets in protest.

Cathedral clashes

This opposition frustrated members of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops and Vatican officials who believed that they had been on the verge of ending the liturgical dispute.

In July, the Vatican replaced the locally respected archiepiscopal vicar of Ernakulam-Angamaly, Archbishop Antony Kariyil, who had been appointed in 2019 to oversee the archeparchy’s day-to-day governance in the wake of the priests’ revolt. Archbishop Kariyil claimed that he was forced to step aside after he dispensed priests from adopting the new mode.

He was succeeded by Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, who made it clear that his priority as apostolic administrator was the introduction of the uniform mode. In a circular letter in September, he appealed to parishes to adopt the uniform liturgy as soon as possible. Protesters responded by publicly burning copies of the letter.

On the First Sunday of Advent, the start of a new liturgical year, Archbishop Thazhath attempted to enter Ernakulam’s St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica to celebrate the liturgy according to the 50:50 formula.

But protesters blocked him from entering the cathedral gates. Following confrontations between critics and supporters of the archbishop, police detained seven people who were later released on bail.

Police cleared protesters from the cathedral, and the gates were locked to prevent further disturbances, obliging local Catholics to pray outside for several days.

Archbishop Thazhath, who was recently elected president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), was granted police protection, claiming that he had reason to fear for his life.

When the cathedral reopened, supporters of the liturgy facing the people occupied it, holding continuous prayer services.

On Dec. 23, Archbishop Thazhath circulated a letter to clergy urging them to begin celebrating the uniform mode “at least by Christmas 2022.”

He said that opposition to the change was “crossing all the limits” and protesters could face “disciplinary actions, even from the part of the Holy See.”

That same day, there were surreal scenes when the cathedral’s recently appointed administrator, Fr. Antony Puthuvelil, walked up the altar while priests were celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy facing the people. Dressed in vestments, he stood facing the priests across the altar, seemingly about to begin celebrating the uniform liturgy. Video footage showed police on the sanctuary steps attempting to restore order.

The next day, Dec. 24, lay people stormed up the sanctuary steps while priests who supported the liturgy facing the people were praying at the altar. The protesters pushed the portable altar  — on which Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Kochi in 1986 — to the side of the sanctuary, knocking objects to the ground. The priests appeared to be struck and jostled as they tried to prevent the altar from being moved.

When the protesters could push the altar no further, they pulled off the altar cloth, sending red missals flying. A group of priests bunched together beneath the high altar, while another group of clerics formed a protective circle around a priest in vestments holding a chalice and pall to his chest. Police in khaki-colored uniforms penned in the protesters beside the altar.

Midnight Mass was, not surprisingly, canceled. On Dec. 27, Archbishop Thazhath announced that he was creating a commission to investigate the “scandalous events” at the cathedral.

He asked commission members to determine “what really happened in the Cathedral Basilica on 23 & 24 December,” identify those responsible, and make proposals to “resolve the issues related to the implementation of the uniform mode.”

But the Archeparchial Protection Council, a body representing local priests, rejected the commission.

In a four-page letter, it alleged that commission members were aligned with “the hostile party” that stormed the sanctuary.

“The visuals aired by the media of the sad events that occurred in St Mary’s Cathedral Basilica amply pinpoints the details of the miscreants and hooligans who organized the sacrilege and desecration of the basilica,” it said.

“Does the commission need any further evidence to study? The sole purpose of still asking the commission to study the events is to frame those events according to the interests of the apostolic administrator.”

Where now?

Both sides in the dispute appear to agree on just one thing: the current situation is intolerable.

But they disagree completely about how it could be resolved. For Archbishop Thazhath and his supporters, there is one desired outcome: the swift introduction of the uniform liturgy in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

Yet for the vast majority of the archeparchy’s priests and laity, the only acceptable conclusion is the recognition of the Holy Qurbana facing the people as a legitimate liturgical variant.

There was a brief glimpse of hope for reconciliation when the Church’s permanent synod agreed to form a three-member committee of bishops to discuss the standoff with clergy and lay representatives in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt of Kottayam, Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry, and Bishop José Chittooparambil of Rajkot held a three-hour meeting with the priests and laity on Nov. 25.

By all accounts, it was positive, but just two days later, the first clash at the basilica occurred, derailing the attempt at mediation.

There is currently no indication that Pope Francis and Vatican officials would support a compromise. They have always insisted that the archdiocese should adopt the uniform liturgy in line with the rest of the Syro-Malabar Church.

But it’s unlikely that they’ve ever been presented with a compromise that was acceptable to both sides — and it’s impossible to know how they would react to one.

The pope has sometimes relented when it seems impossible to enforce a decision. A clear example is in the Nigerian Diocese of Ahiara, where he ordered clergy to accept a bishop appointed by Benedict XVI but rejected locally because he belonged to a different ethnic group. The priests defied Pope Francis’ ultimatum and he ultimately accepted the appointee’s resignation. (The diocese has lain vacant ever since, while the rejected bishop is now a cardinal.)

The pope may conclude that it simply isn’t feasible to introduce the uniform mode in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese at present.

That may depend partly on the advice he receives from the incoming head of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, the Vatican department responsible for relations between Rome and Syro-Malabar Catholics.

Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, who will take up the post in mid-January, is known for his keen scholarly interest in Eastern liturgies, but it is unclear how that will influence his reading of the situation in India.

What if there is no attempt at compromise? Then there is likely to be more of the same: incendiary protests, battles at the basilica, and police interventions.

Perhaps paradoxically, the Syro-Malabar Church is one of the most dynamic parts of the Catholic Church. Its evangelical influence is increasingly felt far beyond India. But as the liturgy war rages with no end in sight, its internal communion, its inner vitality, is being gravely damaged.

The Syro-Malabar Church’s bishops will meet next week at Mount St. Thomas, outside Ernakulum. Local Syro-Malabar Catholics will be eagerly following their deliberations, waiting to see whether more conflict or conciliation lies ahead.


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