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Efforts on to resolve Indian Church's liturgical dispute

Vatican appointee tasked to end the dispute is facing opposition in an archdiocese of the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church
christians in india - The Archbishop's House of Ernakulam-Angamaly at Kochi, the commercial capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala

The Archbishop's House of Ernakulam-Angamaly at Kochi, the commercial capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala. (Photo: UCA News) 

Published: January 11, 2023 11:03 AM GMT
Updated: January 12, 2023 06:15 AM GMT

The Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church in southern India has initiated a dialogue process to resolve a decades-old liturgical dispute that has led to division and conflict between its hierarchy and the priests and laity.

A five-member delegation of bishops led by Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry held prolonged closed-door discussions with representatives of the priests and laity of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, who have been on a warpath over the mode of celebrating Mass in the southern state of Kerala, on Jan 10.

A majority of priests and laypeople in the archdiocese, which is the seat of power of the Church's Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry, want to continue with the traditional mode wherein the priests say Mass facing the congregation. They refuse to accept the synod-approved form, in which the celebrant has to face the altar during the Eucharist.

“The initial talks were successful barring few contentious issues,” a Church source, who did not want to be named, told UCA news.

The contentious issues he mentioned include the demand for the removal of Apostolic Administrator Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, and reinstatement of the former Metropolitan Vicar Archbishop Antony Kariyil, besides allowing visiting bishops and priests to offer the synod-approved Mass in the archdiocese.

The Synod of Bishops is currently holding its session and has assigned the bishops' delegation to resolve the dispute that has scandalized the Catholic Church in India. It was the synod’s decision in August 2021 to impose the uniform mode of Mass across 35 dioceses that triggered a division and conflict.

The synod had taken a similar decision way back in 1999, but it had to be shelved due to stiff opposition from bishops, priests and laity from several dioceses.

This time around, only the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese continues to oppose its decision causing a public showdown in the form of street protests and clashes.

The Vatican had to intervene and appointed Archbishop Thazhath as the administrator in place of Archbishop Kariyil, who failed to implement the uniform mode of Mass, on July 30 last year.

The appointment of Archbishop Thazhath further worsened the situation after he unilaterally ordered the priests to adopt the synod-approved mode.

The priests and laity boycotted the administrator and even blocked his entry into the Archbishop’s House and other Church institutions, compelling him to seek police protection by appealing to the Kerala High Court.

Clashes between supporters of the administrator and the parishioners in December last led to the St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the archdiocese remaining shut.

The five-member delegation of bishops discussed these issues with five priests and five laypeople representing the archdiocese.

“The delegates of the priests and laity refused to have any interaction whatsoever with the apostolic administrator and have asked the synod to withdraw him,” the Church source said.

The bishops assured to consider their demand but wanted them to allow visiting bishops and priests from other dioceses to celebrate the Mass in the synod-approved mode.

“No such concession will be allowed as in other dioceses no such practice exists. The visitors follow the local tradition in liturgy, not their own,” the Church source said.

The priests and laity also opposed a suggestion by the bishops that Cardinal Alencherry offer the uniform Mass five times a year.

The Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese is the second largest diocese in India with more than half a million Catholics, who constitute some 10 percent of the members of the Syro-Malabar Church.

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