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India's Eastern Church implements new Mass form, disputes continue

The Vatican has agreed with some dioceses to delay the implementation of a new form of liturgy following priests' protests

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: November 30, 2021 04:21 AM GMT

Updated: November 30, 2021 07:32 AM GMT

India's Eastern Church implements new Mass form, disputes continue

A priest of the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church celebrates Mass in the new format facing the altar. (Photo supplied)  

A five-decade-long liturgical dispute refuses to die in India’s Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church as three of its 35 dioceses have refused to implement a new uniform liturgical celebration

The new form of celebrating Mass began on Nov. 28, but the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the seat of the church’s major archbishop, neighboring Irinjalakuda Diocese and Faridabad Diocese that includes the national capital have decided not to adapt the new form following opposition from their priests.

The bishops’ synod, the church’s top decision-making body, announced the uniform liturgy in 1999 but it was implemented only in some dioceses. But last August the synod asked all dioceses to start implementing it from Nov. 28. It also gave until next April 17 to complete it by pastorally creating awareness among those opposing it.

“I am still ready to wait for complete unity in the church,” Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, said during a homily at its headquarters on the outskirts of Kochi city in Kerala state.

“There is no need to be afraid of dissenting voices. Let no one think that they are greater than God,” he said as he celebrated Mass in the new format.

“Unity and peace in the church are the will of God … If we need to wait for more for unity, we must do it,” he asserted.

It is true three dioceses did not agree with the uniform Mass, but other dioceses have complied with the synod decision

Most priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese have openly opposed the new form and insisted on continuing to offer Mass facing people.

Following protests, Archbishop Antony Kariyil, the vicar of the major archbishop for the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, issued a circular allowing priests to continue with the old form of Mass.

The dispute began when a liturgical reform movement began after the Second Vatican Council. One section wanted to renew the liturgy to restore its ancient purity with priests facing the altar, but others wanted to modernize it with priests facing the congregation.

The new form, seen as a compromise, wants priests to face people during the start and concluding part of Mass but face the altar during the Eucharistic prayer.

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The bishops of three dioceses, following pressure from priests and laity, sought permission from the Vatican to exempt them from implementing the synod decision. The Vatican agreed to their demand to follow the existing form of Mass by facing the congregation throughout.

“It is true three dioceses did not agree with the uniform Mass, but other dioceses have complied with the synod decision," said Father Alex Onampally, media commission secretary of the Syro-Malabar synod.

He told UCA News on Nov. 29 that the synod “will hold discussions with the bishops and others opposed to the uniform Mass further to convince them of the importance of unity in liturgy including the way we celebrate.”

“We can build a strong church only when we are united,” Father Onampally said, expressing hope that “sooner or later” others will join the majority in celebrating Mass.

In a couple of parishes, people forced priests to continue with the existing Mass or to follow the new one, but but no serious protest or obstructions were reported, officials said.

The synod could have consulted the people and the priests before taking such a decision

Riju Kanjookaran, spokesperson of a laity forum that protested against the uniform mode of Mass, thanked the Vatican for accepting their demand.

“For more than 50 years we have been following this form of Mass and we don’t want any change in it,” he told UCA News on Nov. 29.

“Neither the people nor the priests ever asked the synod to change it, but it [synod] without consulting anyone decided to implement a disputed decision made in 1999.

“It is true earlier people merely followed what the bishops and priests said, but now times have changed. The synod could have consulted the people and the priests before taking such a decision.”

Kanjookaran said people had refused the 1999 synod decision on the new Mass and continued with their old form.

“There were no problems anywhere. We don’t understand the reason for the sudden unilateral decision of the synod.  No doubt, it has divided priests, bishops and laypeople,’ he said.

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