Liturgy dispute goes on unabated in Eastern rite Indian Church

Church official hints at action against priests who refused to read out bishop’s circular during Sunday Mass

UCA News reporter

Updated: January 22, 2024 12:11 PM GMT

More than 400 priests concelebrate a Mass on Dec. 10, 2023, in Kerala marking the centenary of the elevation of Ernakulam-Angamaly as an archdiocese and the establishment of the Syro-Malabar hierarchy in 1923. (Photo: UCAN file)

Priests in a troubled Indian archdiocese have again defied bishops of their Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church as they continue to reject a liturgy approved by the Church's synod.

More than 300 priests in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese refused to read out a circular from apostolic administrator Bishop Bosco Puthur in their parishes during the Sunday Mass on Jan. 21.

The Jan. 15 circular urged priests in the archdiocese, based in southern Kerala state, to celebrate the Synod-approved Mass.

Among the 328 parishes in the archdiocese, the circular was read in only some 10 churches, said a statement from the Archdiocesan Moment for Transparency (AMT), which spearheads the campaign against the Synod-approved Mass.

The Synod-approved Mass, on which the celebrant faces the altar during the Eucharist, was celebrated only in five parishes, the AMT said in a Jan. 21 statement. 

Most priests and laity in the archdiocese want to continue their more than five-decade-old liturgy where the celebrant faces the congregation throughout.

In a video message on Dec. 7, Pope Francis urged rebel priests to adopt the Synod-approved Mass by Dec. 25.  Failure might lead to excommunication, he had warned.

In August last year, Pope Francis also delegated Jesuit Archbishop Cyril Vasil of Slovakia to find an amicable solution to the lingering dispute which has seen clashes, hunger strikes, burning of effigies and police cases in the past two years. 

It is once again clear that the priests and the laity in the archdiocese are against the Synod-approved Mass, said Riju Kanjookaran, an AMT spokesperson.

The Synod, the supreme decision-making body of the India-based Church, in August 2021 revived the dispute when it ordered all its 35 dioceses to adopt the synod-approved Mass by November 2021.

After initial opposition, all but the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese complied with the synod's order. 

The archdiocese is the seat of the Church's Major Archbishop with close to 10 percent of 5 million followers of the Syro-Malabar Church, the second largest Eastern Rite Church.

The priests' refusal to read the circular from their apostolic administrator will have far-reaching implications,   Syro-Malabar Church spokesman, Father Antony Vadakkekara, told UCA News on Jan. 22.

The Church will not tolerate such indiscipline, he said.

Let them (priests) agree or disagree with what is said in the circular. They are duty-bound to read it, asserted the Vincentian priest.

The Kerala-headquartered Church got a new head, Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, on Jan. 11 within a month after his predecessor Cardinal George Alencherry resigned amid the liturgy dispute.

Thattil on Jan. 18 told a ceremony in Kerala's Idukki district that the priests will not be allowed to celebrate Mass the way they want.

A priest, who did not want to be named, told UCA News on Jan. 22,  that the Synod revived the dispute clandestinely by amending the liturgy text approved by Pope Francis leading to the current crisis .

The Synod must rectify its mistake, added the priest.

The liturgy dispute began in the 1970s, soon after the Vatican Second Council when attempts began to revise the Church's liturgy.

One group wanted to modernize the liturgy but another wanted to restore their ancient Church's liturgy. After some five decades of wrangling, the synod devised a liturgy in which the celebrant faces the altar during Eucharistic prayer and faces the congregation during the rest of the Mass. 

However, priests and laity in the archdiocese do not want the celebrant to face the altar during the Mass.    

Our stand is clear we will not make any compromise on our demand for the traditional Mass, Kanjookaran the AMT spokesperson said.

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