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Vatican delegate to 'solve' Indian church's liturgy row

Archbishop Cyril Vasil moves in after the Syro-Malabar Church failed to end decades-old dispute

Archbishop Cyril Vasil was appointed as Pontifical Delegate to find a lasting solution to the decades-long liturgical dispute in the Eastern Rite Syro-Malabar Church based in southern Indian Kerala state

Archbishop Cyril Vasil was appointed as Pontifical Delegate to find a lasting solution to the decades-long liturgical dispute in the Eastern Rite Syro-Malabar Church based in southern Indian Kerala state (Photo: supplied)

Published: August 01, 2023 12:13 PM GMT

Updated: August 02, 2023 05:12 AM GMT

The Vatican has appointed a Pontifical Delegate to find a lasting solution to the decades-old liturgy dispute in the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church in India, triggering skepticism from a rival group.

Jesuit Archbishop Cyril Vasil of Slovakia was appointed on July 31 as the Pontifical Delegate after the Kerala-based Church's synod, the top decision-making body, failed to find a solution.

Archbishop Vasil, a former secretary of the Office for Eastern Churches and head of the Greek Catholic diocese of Kosice in Slovakia, is tasked with conducting a study to suggest a lasting solution.

The liturgy row in the Church with more than 5 million followers has seen clashes, public rallies, hunger strikes, burning of effigies, and police registering cases.

The dispute dates back to the 1970s with one group wanting to revive the liturgy in its pristine purity and another group demanding revision on modern lines. The traditionalist wanted the priests to celebrate the Mass facing the altar throughout the Eucharistic celebration, while the modernists wanted them to face the congregation.

The dispute intensified after the Church's Synod approved a uniform Mass and directed priests to turn to the altar during Eucharistic prayer and face people for the rest of the Mass in 1990.

Except for the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, all 35 dioceses of the church adopted the synod-approved Mass by 2022.

The archdiocese is the seat of the Church's Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alancherry.

Tensions continued to simmer in the archdiocese as the synod insisted on implementing the uniform liturgy with a majority of its priests and Catholics opposing it.

Last December, the archdiocese's St Mary’s Cathedral Basilica was closed following a brawl between rival groups inside it.

The Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (AMT), comprising priests, religious and lay people from the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, questioned the appointment of Archbishop Vasil.

It expressed doubts about the credibility of Archbishop Vasil.

He was "instrumental in whitewashing a land scam involving Cardinal Alencherry and the expulsion of two auxiliary bishops from the archbishop’s house without the knowledge of the Vatican and Pope Francis," it said in a July 31 statement.

Archbishop Vasil studied in Rome with Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Trichur, who is currently serving as apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, it said. 

The archdiocesan movement sees Cardinal Alencherry and Archbishop Thazhath among their rivals trying to impose a liturgy they do not want.

The dispute took an ugly turn on July 31 when the two prelates were prevented from attending the funeral of an archdiocesan priest.

Police escorted them out of the church after the archdiocesan Catholics objected to their presence at the funeral of Father Jose Karachira in a parish under the archdiocese.

The Pontifical Delegate is expected to arrive in Kerala on Aug. 4, accompanied by Jesuit Father Sunny Kokkaravalayil, professor of canon law at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

Despite the concerns, the archdiocesan movement has not called for a boycott of the papal delegate.

 “We will cooperate with the papal delegate despite our serious concerns,” Riju Kanjookaran, spokesperson of the movement, told UCA News on Aug. 1.

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