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Pope asks India's Eastern rite Church to solve its liturgy dispute

Pope Francis told the Church's top leaders that he does not want to interfere in the affairs of their self-governing Church
Pope Francis met with Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil of Eastern Rte Syro-Malabar Church on May 13 in the Vatican.

Pope Francis met with Eastern Rite Syro-Malabar Church's head, Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, on May 13. (Photo Vatican news)

Published: May 16, 2024 12:24 PM GMT
Updated: May 17, 2024 04:25 AM GMT

The decades-long liturgy dispute in India’s Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church continues after Pope Francis asked the Church’s Synod of Bishops to find a solution while urging it to “keep the door open” for the rebellious group.

The Church of some 5 million Catholics based in southern Kerala state faces the threat of a split after a majority of priests and laity in its Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese persistently refused to follow a uniform rubric of Mass that the synod introduced in 1999. The synod is the Church's supreme decision-making body,

The synod-approved rubrics want the celebrant to face the altar during the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass.  However, people in the archdiocese want the celebrant to face the congregation throughout the Mass, as has been their practice since 1970. As the synod pressed for compliance, they sought to become an independent Church directly under the pope.

Pope Francis met with a delegation of lay leaders from the archdiocese on May 6 before addressing the leaders of the Church’s synod, including the Church’s head, Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, on May 13.

“I wish to help you, not supersede you, because the nature of your Church is sui iuris (self-governing)," the pope told the members of the hierarchy, shows the written text of the speech that the Vatican released.

The self-governing nature of the Church “empowers you not only to examine carefully the situations and challenges that you face but also to take appropriate steps to address them, with responsibility and evangelical courage, remaining faithful to the guidance of the Major Archbishop and the Synod,” Pope Francis said.

However, he urged for unity rather than separation.

He asked the synod to “work with determination to protect communion and pray tirelessly that our brothers and sisters, tempted by a worldliness that leads to rigidity and division, may realize that they are part of a larger family that loves them and waits for them.”

The pope asked to “leave the doors open so that, once they have repented, they will not find it difficult to re-enter.”

Representatives of laity and priests in the archdiocese, home to some 500,000 Catholics or some 10 percent of the Church, say the papal letter has confused them.

“There is more confusion than solution,” said Father Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the presbytery council in the archdiocese.

“We expected some tangible steps leading to a permanent solution to the dispute as both sides personally met the pope and expressed their concerns,” Mundadan told UCA News on May 16.

“Pope has no doubt stressed the need for unity in the Church, and it will be possible only when there is a solution to the lingering dispute,’’ he added.

A Church official who did not want to be named told UCA News on May 15 that the pope did not suggest a decision because the Vatican did not want to be seen interfering with the autonomy of a sui juris Church, which is in communion with the Vatican.

The India-based Church is the second largest among 22 Oriental churches in communion with the Vatican, after the Ukrainian Church.

“The Vatican intervention was sought after the Church’s Synod failed to discharge its duty, but now Vatican’s reluctance to act once again put the ball back in the court of the same synod that triggered the current dispute,” a Church leader said.

The current dispute in the Archdiocese stems from the August 2021 synodal decision, which ignored enduring resistance and instructed all 35 dioceses in India and abroad to adopt uniform rubrics to ensure liturgical uniformity.

The synod also fixed November 2021 as the deadline to comply with its order. After initial opposition from 12 dioceses, all but the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese adopted the synod-approved Mass.

In the past three years, the division has led to street protests, physical violence, and the closure of the archdiocesan cathedral church. Recently, priests and laity of the archdiocese warned of separating from the Church if they were not allowed to celebrate Mass with the celebrant facing the people.

“We have informed the Vatican about our stand; now, it is for the Vatican to decide,” said Riju Kanjookaran, the spokesperson of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (AMT), a forum of priests and laity that spearheads the resistance.

“We will not dilute our demand to continue with our traditional Mass,” he told UCA News on May 15.

He accused the synod of  “illegally amending the Vatican-approved text for liturgy and incorporating rubrics, which led to the current crisis.”

“Let the bishops correct their mistake. The dispute is nothing but the bishops' adamant stand to give legal status to their clandestine acts,” he added.

The Archdiocesan Protection Committee, a body of Archdiocesan priests, reminded the synod on May 14 that the pope had not restrained it from granting liturgy variant status to Mass followed in the archdiocese.

Father Jose Vailikodath, the committee’s public relations officer, said the pope had stressed “on unity and not for uniformity” in a veiled attack on the synod’s insistence on uniformity of liturgy in the Church.

Currently, the archdiocese is administered by an apostolic administrator with the help of a pontifical delegate.

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2 Comments on this Story
No use in talking with Mar Thattil. Popes represntative was manhandled i Eranakulam kerala India
Evangelization and conversion are ongoing and never-ending opportunities. Making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Peter at the Vatican and gathering graces for conversion and transformation is a meaningful step in the right direction.
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