Parishioners seek to reopen St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica which remains closed after clashes over uniform mode of Mass
Catholics protest in front of St Mary's Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam in the southern Indian state of Kerala on Jan. 26 demanding the police reopen it. (Photo supplied)
The protracted liturgy dispute in India’s Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church has been dragged into a civil court after its Synod of Bishops and a Vatican-appointed administrator failed to settle the decades-old internal tussle.
A top court in the southern state of Kerala, where the Church is based, on Feb. 1 issued notices to Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Church, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, among others to present their case.
The Kerala High Court’s intervention was sought by two parishioners through a petition. The petition sought to reopen a cathedral and restore their right to profess and practice their religion as enshrined in the Indian constitution.
The petitioners, Tomy Joseph and Antony Joseph pleaded that their rights were being infringed upon since the St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the archdiocese was closed by the police on Dec. 24 last year following a violent clash between rival Catholics over the longstanding liturgy dispute.They further sought the court’s intervention to reopen the Cathedral Church.
The court has directed the Church authorities to submit their replies to the petition and posted the case for hearing on Feb.6.
The petitioners told the court that the more than five decades-old liturgy dispute had led to the current tense situation in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.
“This is a serious dispute and if it is allowed to continue it will affect the public at large, because, tension is prevailing in the locality… in the present situation, conducting Holy Mass without any interruption is not possible,” they said in the petition.
The single bench of Justice Shaji Paul Chaly agreed to hear the petition and served notices to all concerned parties including office bearers of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (AMT), a body of laity and priests, and the Archdiocesan Protection Committee (APC), a forum of priests in the archdiocese.
Experts and Church leaders say dragging the church dispute to a civil court will have serious consequences on the Church, including questions about its credibility and authority.
Advocate Govind Yadav, who practices in India’s Supreme Court, told UCA News on Feb. 3 that religious disputes are not generally a matter of concern for Indian courts and such issues must be settled within the community without outside inference.
“In other words settlement of the liturgy dispute is essential to bring peace among the warring factions and reopen the Cathedral Church,” he said.
Jesuit Father A. Santhanam, a practicing high court lawyer in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, agreed that it is “not a wise move to allow an internal issue specifically concerning the Church to be dragged into a court.
He urged Church authorities to deal with the delicate issue through a lenient pastoral approach considering the sentiments of people and priests in the archdiocese.
“The liturgy dispute and the consequent lawlessness witnessed were quite disturbing and unbecoming of true Christian believers,” opined Father Babu Joseph, a former spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.
The Divine Word priest based in the central state of Madhya Pradesh told UCA News that since a section of the laity has approached the civil court the situation was “fraught with many serious consequences on the credibility and authority” of the Syro-Malabar Synod.
“Religion matters are best left to religious leaders to resolve rather than letting civil authorities intervene, erasing the fine dividing line between religion and state authorities,” Father Joseph added.
The liturgy dispute was revived in August 2021 when the synod reaffirmed its decision in 1999 to adopt a uniform Mass for the 35 dioceses of the Eastern rite Church ignoring all opposition from some bishops, many priests and laity.
The situation worsened after Archbishop Thazhath was appointed apostolic administrator on July 30 last year. He reportedly tried to enforce the synod decision leading to protests and street fights that led to the closure of the Cathedral Church.
The priests and laity in the archdiocese want the Mass to be conducted in the traditional format with celebrants facing the people. They reject the synod-approved Mass in which the celebrant faces the altar during Eucharistic prayer.
Among the 35 dioceses of the Syro-Malabar Church, only Catholics in the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly continue their resistance.
India-based Syro-Malabar Church, one of the 22 Oriental churches in communion with the Holy See, is the second largest Eastern Church with more than 5 million followers.
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