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India’s Eastern Church moves for uniform liturgy ignoring opposition

Critics of synod decision oppose priests facing the altar against the congregation during the liturgical celebration 
India’s Eastern Church moves for uniform liturgy ignoring opposition

A group of Catholics protesting in front of the headquarters of India's Syro-Malabar Church on Aug. 27 against the decision of the Church's synod to implement a uniform celebration of the liturgy in all its 35 dioceses. (Photo: supplied)    

Published: August 29, 2021 06:51 AM GMT
Updated: August 30, 2021 04:13 AM GMT

Synod of the Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church has decided to implement a uniform mode of celebrating mass in all its 35 dioceses from Nov. 28, ignoring the opposition from a section of priests and laity.

All dioceses will celebrate the liturgy in a uniform way by next April 17,  Easter Sunday of 2022, said the synod in an Aug. 27 statement, issued at the end of its week-long online gathering.

The synod decision follows Pope Francis' letter on July 6, which asked the Church to implement a standardized form of liturgy, as agreed by the synod of Bishops in 1999.

The Church has been divided over the liturgical celebration for more than four decades with some priests celebrating the Mass facing the congregation, while some faced the altar against the congregation.

The synod two decades ago agreed that all its priests will face the congregation during the Mass until the Eucharistic prayer, and then again from Communion to the end of the Mass. During the Eucharistic prayer, they will face the altar against the congregation.

However, a section of priests and laity opposed it and sought papal intervention. They did not want priests to stand facing the altar, against the congregation during the Mass.

The latest papal letter asked to implement the 1999 synod decision as “an important step towards increasing stability and ecclesial communion” in the Church, based in southern Indian Kerala state.

The synod “unanimously welcomed” the papal letter and thanked “his intervention for the unity and growth” of the Church, the synod statement said.

As a first step of implementing the decision, all cathedral churches, pilgrim centers, religious houses and minor seminaries will implement the decision on Nov. 18, the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year.

Some bishops, who expressed difficulties in implementing the decision in their whole diocese, can introduce the uniform mode of celebration starting with all possible parishes on Nov. 18.

“By effective catechesis, the uniform mode shall be gradually introduced in the whole eparchy as early as possible, not later than Easter 2022,” the statement said.

The synod asked the bishops to avoid “any confrontation with anyone” as the objective of the bishops “is to forge more unity among the members of the Church.”

However, soon after the decision was announced, a group of people under the banner of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (AMT) protested in front of Mount St. Thomas, the headquarters of the Church in Kerala’s Ernakulum district.

AMT members, based in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, carried posters and banners opposing the synod decision for uniform mass.

“Mass facing people is our tradition,” one banner read. “Pope Francis Stands for unity rather than uniformity” and “We want holy mass facing the people,” included other slogans.

Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese is the seat of the Church’s head and Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry.

Several AMT leaders said they have the support of priests, religious and thousands of laypeople and will intensify opposition if bishops press priests to celebrate Mass facing the altar against the congregation.

“Close to 500 diocesan and religious priests working in Ernakulam archdiocese alone had communicated in writing to the Vatican and Synod about their disagreement with the uniform mass,” said Riju Kanjookaran, AMT convenor.

“But the bishops ignored it and wanted to force them to follow something they do not want. This is not a Catholic way of dealing with any issue that is controversial,” Kanjookaran told UCA News on Aug. 28.

“We have been celebrating Mass with the priest facing the people for more than six decades, and now why suddenly follow something archaic. It is a direct assault on our tradition and culture,” he said.

He wanted more dialogue and lay participation in deciding on a vital issue such as the liturgy.

Father Jose Vailikodath, AMT spokesman, majority of Church’s members live in 10 of the 35 dioceses, mostly in Kerala.

“Their opinion was often stifled since there was more number of bishops from outside, particularly from northern India, where Church has few members," the priest said. 

“The synod decision had come as a shock to the majority of Church members,” Father Vailikodath said.

Church officials, however, have not yet reacted to the opposition to the synod decision.

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