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Priests, laity defy new head of India's Eastern rite Church

Only 12 of 328 parishes in archdiocese read out Major Archbishop’s pastoral letter to protest his failure to settle liturgy dispute
Catholics burn the circular of Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the Apostolic Administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, on June 25, 2023, in front of St Mary's Cathedral Basilica in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The liturgy dispute in the archdiocese continues with priests refusing to read out the pastoral letter from their new Major Archbishop on March 10.

Catholics burn the circular of Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the Apostolic Administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, on June 25, 2023, in front of St Mary's Cathedral Basilica in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The liturgy dispute in the archdiocese continues with priests refusing to read out the pastoral letter from their new Major Archbishop on March 10. (Photo: supplied)

Published: March 11, 2024 12:35 PM GMT
Updated: March 12, 2024 04:41 AM GMT

Most priests in a troubled Indian archdiocese have snubbed their new Church head by refusing to read out his first pastoral letter to protest his failure to resolve a lingering liturgy dispute.

Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil of the Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church based in southern Kerala state had instructed priests to read out the pastoral letter at all parishes, institutions, religious houses, formation centers, and major seminaries during Sunday services on March 10.

However, only 12 of the 328 parishes in Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, the seat of power of the Church, complied. Even the priests who read out the pastoral letter skipped the portion related to the liturgy dispute.

Thattil was named the Church's Major Archbishop on Jan. 11 after Cardinal George Alencherry quit on Dec. 7, 2023, amid allegations that he mishandled the liturgy dispute.

Thattil emerged as a consensus candidate and was expected to find an amicable solution to the five-decades-old dispute.

“But to everyone's dismay, he did not do anything seriously to settle the dispute. Instead, he continued to pursue policies of his predecessor,” said a diocesan priest who did not want to be named.

Speaking to UCA News on March 11, the priest asked: “What is the point in reading out the pastoral letter” when Thattil was not ready to understand the priests and laity in the archdiocese.

The four-page pastoral letter had only a few paragraphs explaining the major archbishop’s stand on the liturgy dispute.

It asked for prayers to "heal this wound in our Church." 

It also said the Vatican entrusted Jesuit Archbishop Cyril Vasil, the pontifical delegate, and Bishop Mar Bosco Puthur, the apostolic administrator, to find a solution, and sought the cooperation of all to sustain unity in the Church.

“Nobody can step backward from the repeated exhortations given by the Holy Father to implement the decision of the Synod on the uniform mode of celebration. We have to remain in the communion of the Catholic Church by living in total docility to the Holy Father,” the letter added.

The majority of priests and laypeople in the archdiocese remain opposed to the uniform mode of Mass, which the synod wants to implement. It requires the celebrant to face the altar during the Eucharist prayer.

Those opposed to it continue with the more than five-decade-old liturgy, where the celebrant faces the congregation throughout.

The Archdiocesan Moment for Transparency (AMT) in a statement on Mar. 10 said that “it will not allow the Synod Mass to be celebrated in Archdiocesan churches” as it was already rejected and was being clandestinely imposed on them.

“Now it is for the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church, the top decision-making body under Thattil, to rectify its mistake and allow us to continue with our traditional mass,” said Riju Kanjookaran, spokesperson of AMT.

He told UCA News that there will be no compromise on the issue. 

There was no word from Church officials on what action would be taken against the defiant priests.

The liturgy dispute began in the 1970s soon after the Second Vatican Council with attempts to revise the Church’s liturgy. The Synod in 1999 decided to implement a uniform mode of the Eucharist but had to shelve it following opposition from many bishops, priests, and laity.

The synod under Alencherry in Aug. 2021 ordered all 35 dioceses to adopt the uniform mode in November of the same year.

After initial resistance, all except the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese complied with the order.

The archdiocese accounts for close to 10 percent of the 5 million followers of the Syro-Malabar Church, which is the second largest Eastern rite Church.

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