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Crisis deepens in India's Eastern Church over liturgy

Some 300 priests are refusing to accept a bishops' synod decision to celebrate Mass in a uniform way

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: August 31, 2021 06:57 AM GMT

Updated: August 31, 2021 08:13 AM GMT

Crisis deepens in India's Eastern Church over liturgy

Catholic laity demonstrate in front of the headquarters of the Syro-Malabar Church in Eranakulam on Aug. 27, protesting a decision of its synod to implement uniform liturgical celebration in all its 35 dioceses. (Photo supplied) 

The liturgical dispute in India’s Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church has deepened after a section of priests opted not to follow a synod decision to have a uniform liturgical celebration in all 35 dioceses.

Some 300 priests of Ernakulum-Angamaly Archdiocese, the seat of the church’s major archbishop, Cardinal George Alencherry, met their archiepiscopal vicar, Archbishop Antony Kariyil, on Aug. 28 and explained their decision, said Father Jose Vailikodath, a priests’ council member.

“We met Archbishop Kariyil and urged him to get a dispensation from Pope Francis over the synod decision so that we can continue with our traditional mode of celebrating Holy Mass, facing the congregation,” Father Vailikodath told UCA News on Aug. 31.

The bishops’ synod, the church’s supreme decision-making body, on Aug. 27 asked parishes in all dioceses to implement a uniform mode of Mass from Nov. 28. The synod had decided on a uniform liturgy in 1999 but the decision was not implemented in some dioceses following opposition from priests and laity.

Bishops who find it difficult to implement the decision should do it in a phased manner “through effective catechesis.” All dioceses should complete the process by next Easter Sunday, April 17, said the synod of the church based in southern India's Kerala state in an official circular.

Father Vailikodath termed the decision “autocratic” and accused the synod of not “taking into account the feelings of the priests and laity even after informing it much in advance in writing.”

Pope Francis in an early July letter urged the Syro-Malabar Church to implement the 1999 synodal decision for 'stability and ecclesial communion'

He said they have told Archbishop Kariyil that if the decision was not reversed, they would not offer Mass in public. Instead, they will offer Mass in private as any open opposition to the synod decision is tantamount to disobedience, the priest said.

The dispute began some four decades ago when the church attempted to renew its liturgy. While a section of priests wanted to renew the liturgy in its pristine purity, others wanted the renewal on modern lines.

The modernists wanted the priest to face the congregation while celebrating Mass, while those who argued for tradition insisted on the priest facing the altar in the eastern direction against the people.

After several committees and discussions, the synod of this self-governing church decided in 1999 that the priest would face people from the start of the Mass until the Eucharistic prayer when he would start facing the altar. After Eucharistic prayer, until the end of the Mass, he would again face the people.

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Although this was considered a “compromise formula” by many, a section of priests, mostly from Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, refused to accept it. They appealed to Rome against the decision and continued to celebrate Mass facing people.

Pope Francis in an early July letter urged the Syro-Malabar Church to implement the 1999 synodal decision for “stability and ecclesial communion.”

Father Vailikodath said they have urged Archbishop Kariyil, who heads the administration of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, to “personally call on Pope Francis and convince him for a dispensation.”

The archbishop has not “expressed any disagreement to our demand,” the priest said.

He said of the 513 priests in the archdiocese, including the religious priests, 466 had written a letter to the Vatican and the synod expressing their disagreement with the imposition of the uniform mode of Mass “as it was against the will of the people,” Father Vailikodath said.

For more than six decades, priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese have celebrated Mass facing the congregation inspired by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.  Three generations of people have grown up celebrating Mass in that way, and they will not accept the sudden change, he said.

We are afraid that this call for uniformity will destroy the possibility of unity in the church 

“The papal letter did not ask the synod to literally implement its decision without taking into account the inclinations of the people including priests,” Father Vailikodath said.

Archdiocesan public relations officer Mathew Kilukkan in a written statement said the synod’s “unfortunate decision” amounts to “insulting the synodal concept” of Pope Francis which is based on the idea of “hear everyone, respect diversity.”

“We are afraid that this call for uniformity will destroy the possibility of unity in the church as it comes after silencing one-third of the bishops who wanted to continue Mass celebration facing people,” said the statement in the local Malayalam language.

The priests, religious and laity in the archdiocese will only follow Mass where priests celebrate it facing the congregation, the statement said, asking the synod to withdraw its decision to help unity and peace prevail in the church.

Ordinary Catholics like Cheriyan Joseph, a catechism teacher in Idukki Diocese, consider it an avoidable controversy.

“Eucharistic celebration is very dear to Catholics like me. This kind of controversy is demoralizing and everyone involved in it should settle it without wasting time before it becomes a scandal,” Joseph told UCA News on Aug. 30.

1 Comments on this Story
Its a real pity that the Church is divided over the liturgy. Luckily I am not in rite. I favour that the celebrant face the people and there is more participation from the people.

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