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Indian priest on indefinite fast against uniform liturgy

Critics of synod decision are opposed to Syro-Malabar Church's move to change its traditional mode of Mass celebration

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: January 13, 2022 10:05 AM GMT

Updated: January 14, 2022 06:24 AM GMT

Indian priest on indefinite fast against uniform liturgy

Father Babu Joseph Kalathil, vicar of St. Mary’s Church Perumbavoor, is surrounded by priests supporting his indefinite fast at the archbishop’s house in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly on Jan. 12. (Photo supplied)

A Catholic priest in India has launched an indefinite hunger strike against his Eastern-rite Church’s demand that all priests stop celebrating Mass facing the congregation in order to have uniformity in the liturgy.

Father Babu Joseph Kalathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese started his fast in the archbishop’s house on Jan. 12.

He said the synod’s decision meant priests turning to the altar during Eucharistic prayer, which was not acceptable to him and his supporters.

He claimed to have the support of more than 450 priests of his Syro-Malabar Church based in southern Kerala state.

Most priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, the seat of power of Church's head Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry, have refused to accept the Synod of Bishops’ unanimous decision in
August 2021 to change the mode of Mass celebration in its 35 dioceses across India and abroad.

Priests who oppose the synod decision say the new order of the Mass is archaic and goes against the will of the people, who have been following Mass facing the priest for at least five decades.

“Father Kalathil represents the priests of the archdiocese who pledge their full support to him. We want the bishops to understand and legitimize our traditional Mass and appealed the synod to allow the archdiocese to continue with its priests facing the congregation during Mass,” Father Kuriakose Mundadan, the presbytery council secretary, told UCA News on Jan. 13.

Priests have accused Cardinal Alencherry and the bishops who support him of causing a rift between priests and the laity by insisting on a uniform liturgy.

“If the synod continues with its adamant stand, the archdiocese with more than 500,000 followers will be in turmoil and the future of the church will also be at stake,” he said.

Many laypeople have extended support to the priest while staging protests in front of the church headquarters and organizing vehicle rallies with black flags

Among the 320 parishes in the archdiocese, only two parishes are following the synod Mass and even in those parishes, many of the laity have demanded the removal of the priest.

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The hunger strike began as the Bishops' Synod this year's session started on Jan. 7. The rebelling priests want the synod to pass a decision in their favor before the synod ends on Jan. 15.

The synod is being attended by 57 serving and retired bishops at the Syro-Malabar Church's headquarters at Mount St Thomas, close to where the priest is on an indefinite hunger strike.

Many laypeople have extended support to the priest while staging protests in front of the church headquarters and organizing vehicle rallies with black flags.

Father Alex Onampally, the synod’s media commission secretary, told UCA News that he “cannot comment on the protests including the hunger strike as the synod is in session.”

But there are hints that the synod may not change its stance that among the 35 dioceses only one is opposed to the uniform Mass.

The dispute over the Eucharistic liturgy is more than four decades old. Synod of Bishops in 1999 ruled that the priest “will face the congregation until the Eucharistic prayer, and then again from communion to the end of the Mass. From Eucharistic prayers until communion, the priest will face the altar.”

The synod's formula, seen as a compromise, requires priests to face the congregation during the start and concluding part of the Mass but face the altar during the Eucharistic prayer.

However, many priests in the church’s 35 dioceses, including those in the UK, US, Canada and Australia, refused to change their position of facing the congregation throughout the Mass.

But since the synod's decision to implement it in August last year, many dioceses began to follow it since Nov. 28, the date fixed for introducing uniform liturgy for greater unity of the church.

The indefinite fast by Father Kalathil gains significance in view of April 17 being fixed as the last date to comply with the synod’s decision.

Many priests and lay leaders are worried the standoff may impact the community’s image at a time when Christians are facing increased persecution

Archbishop Antony Kariyil, vicar of the major archbishop, gave dispensation to the diocese from complying with the synod order on Nov. 27, a day before the set deadline.

The archbishop said he took the decision after consulting Pope Francis and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches in the Vatican.

Cardinal Alencherry, however, disagreed with his vicar archbishop and directed him to implement the synod decision, saying he had no power to give dispensation to the entire diocese.

But many priests and laity insisted on continuing to face the congregation as they did for more than five decades.

No compromise looks in sight despite the continued exchange of letters among the two sides, as also with the Vatican.

Many priests and lay leaders are worried the standoff may impact the community’s image at a time when Christians are facing increased persecution from right-wing Hindu groups across India.

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