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India's Eastern Church settles dispute, awaits Vatican nod

The rebelling priests agreed to celebrate one synod-approved Mass in all parishes on all Sundays
Books of the Syro-Malabar Church.

The head of Kerala's Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, met Pope Francis on May 13 in the Vatican's Consistory Hall. (Photo: syromalabarchurch.in)

Published: June 20, 2024 11:46 AM GMT
Updated: June 20, 2024 12:34 PM GMT

A liturgy dispute that pushed India’s eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church to the verge of a split has been settled following concessions from both parties, said a bishop who attended the synod meeting that achieved the breakthrough.

“Subject to the Vatican’s approval, the dispute is settled. The breakthrough came after both sides agreed to accommodate each other. The official announcement will be made in a day or two,” said a bishop who attended the July 19  Synod of Bishops.

The five-decade-long dispute in the Syro-Malabar Church, based in southern Indian Kerala state, intensified three years ago after most priests and Catholics in the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese refused to accept the rubrics of a mass approved by the synod.

“The priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly are now allowed to continue with their traditional Mass. However, they will also have to celebrate one Synod-approved uniform mode of Mass on all Sundays in their parishes,” said the prelate, who did not want to be named. 

“Those who go against this instruction will be disciplined as per the canon law,” told UCA News on June 20.

The dispute was about the rubrics of the Mass. The synod required celebrants to face the altar during the Eucharistic prayer. The archdiocesan priests and laity refused and wanted to continue their Mass, in which the celebrant faced people throughout the Mass.

“We are relieved as our Church is united now,” the prelate said, adding: “Unity of the Church cannot be compromised with a dispute over a rubric or body language of the priest during the Mass.”

A leader of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (AMT), a body of priests, religious and laity in the archdiocese, also confirmed that the bishops have agreed to allow them to continue their Mass based on conditions.

“Our demand is accepted. We are happy,” said the leader, who did not want to be named because an official announcement of the pact has not yet been made.

The bishop said the synod tried to reach a consensus and simultaneously did backdoor discussions with the archdiocesan priests and lay leaders to find an amicable solution.

The lay leader said they suggested to the bishops that the archdiocesan priests celebrate "one Synod-approved Mass on Sundays in every parish, where at least 25 percent of the parishioners want it.”

“But the bishops wanted to have one Synod Mass in every parish on all Sundays as it was difficult to assess the percentage. We agreed to it, and finally, the settlement was reached,” he told UCA News on June 19.

From the verge of schism 

The Church faced the threat of schism after a circular, jointly issued early this month by its head, Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, and Archdiocesan Apostolic Administrator Bosco Puthur, threatened to excommunicate priests who refused to accept the synod-approved Mass.

The June 9 circular ordered priests to follow synod-approved Mass from July 3 and read out the circular in their parish churches on June 16. It was issued before a June 14 Synod, which was convened to discuss a way out of the dispute.

The priests ignored the circular and stiffened their stance, questioning how such a decision bypassed the synod. Their representatives told the media they would have no relation with the bishops and synod if bishops refused to listen to the priests and continued repressive methods.

They also told the media they wanted to become an independent Metropolitan Church within the Catholic fold.

“The circular also came under criticism from a section of the bishops as it made a mockery of them and also of the Synod,” sources said.

Five prelates from the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese also wrote a dissent note to the Major Archbishop, questioning the legality of the threat of automatic excommunication of priests for refusing to accept a rubric. 

As this issue about the circular dominated the June 14 Synod, the bishops decided to have another Synod meet on June 19.

The agreements reached at the synod were shared with the Vatican, including Archbishop Cyril Vasil, the Pontifical delegate of the Archdiocese.

The Archdiocese, with more than half a million Catholics, is the seat of power of the Church head. The Syro-Malabar Church has five million Catholics worldwide.

Disagreements emerged in the 1980s when the Church began reviving its liturgy. Some groups wanted to revive its ancient liturgy, while others tried to revise it according to modern standards.

The Synod of Bishops in 1999 approved a uniform mode of Mass as a settlement formula, asking the priests to face the altar during the Eucharistic prayer and the congregation for the rest of the time.

Priests and laity in some of its 35 dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, opposed the decision and wanted to continue with their Mass, which they celebrate facing the people throughout.

The Synod ordered its implementation in all dioceses in August 2021. Except for the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, all followed the Synod order.

In the past three years, they toughened their stand as the hierarchy used threats of punishment to force them to follow the synod-approved Masses, pushing the Church to the verge of a schism.

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3 Comments on this Story
The tone of the article is clear. The author is a rebel and he narrates his dream of a funny one-day formula. Readers are not idiots like this author.
A little freedom goes a ,one way. It is good that dialogue has been established as the way to resolve discourse, arguments and doubts, instead of authoritarian attitudes. God bless the Syro Malabar Catholic Church
Christianity is the religion that began with Jesus Christ's inauguration of a revolution: that the essence of religion is LOVING GOD, HUMANS, AND NATURE IN AN EVER BROADENING AND EVER DEEPENING MANNER. All other details are to be subservient to this. NO RELIGION SHOULD MAKE ABSOLUTES OUT OF ITS MODES OF LITURGY, HISTORY, THEOLOGY, ETC. If any religion does this -- as we see in most religions today -- that religion begins to lose the right to exist. Now I have A QUESTION TO YOU ALL: DO YOU ALL THINK THAT CHRISTIANITY HAS EVER EMPHASIZED WELL ENOUGH THE PRINCIPLES ON WHICH JESUS CHRIST BEGAN HIS SPIRITUAL MOVEMENT? I think, No...! The priests and the laity alike need to obtain in all the ministries of the Church not only admonitions to love God and others. This should be taught as a matter of realization of the main aim of Christianity. DOES THIS HAPPEN ANYWHERE? UNTIL THIS HAPPENS, IT IS USELESS TO PREACH OR TO INSIST ON RUBRICS AND BE UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT WE ARE ESSENTIALLY A RELIGION......
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