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Updated: November 21, 1999 05:00 PM GMT
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Syro-Malabar Church (SMC) leaders made a "breakthrough" after its bishops´ synod reached a consensus over a decade-old liturgical dispute.

Bishops from the Oriental Church´s 24 dioceses attended the Nov. 14-20 Synod at Kochi, southern India, and agreed on common positions for the priest to adopt during the Mass.

According to the agreement, the priest will face the congregation until the Eucharistic prayer, and then again from Communion to the end of the Mass. From the Eucharistic prayers until Communion, the priest will face the altar.

Although some leaders hailed the decision as a significant development, others conceded that its implementation still depended on priests and laity in various dioceses.

The Synod declared that the new liturgy form will be implemented on July 3, 2000, the day the Churches in Kerala celebrate the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, to whom they trace their faith.

Three forms of Mass now practiced in various dioceses will be discarded, the synod decided.

In one form, the priest faces the congregation throughout the Mass as in the Latin rite, while in another, he faces the altar always. In the third, the priest faces the congregation occasionally.

Paul Thelakkat, editor of Kerala´s "Sathyadeepam" (light of truth) Church weekly, said the "consensus on the contentious issue" should make all sections of the Church happy and "lead to further unity in the Syro-Malabar Church."

Confusion and tension prevailed in SMC dioceses for the past 10 years as bishops and others tried to implement the liturgical form they found "liturgically valid."

According to Father Thelakkat, the altar position comes from the understanding that churches are generally built in the east-west direction.

"The belief that the Lord comes from the east forced some theologians to recommend that the priest face the altar," the priest told UCA News Nov. 21.

Those supporting the position facing the congregation refer to Christ´s promise of his presence amid two or more gathered in prayer.

SMC administrator Redemptorist Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly described the consensus as "a major liturgical settlement" that will help the Church´s mission.

Archbishop Vithayathil said the SMC assembly that preceded the Synod urged the bishops to bring uniformity in the Mass celebration.

The archbishop told UCA News Nov. 20 that the Church´s Central Liturgical Committee and Liturgical Research Center will study the missal´s language, its theology, pastoral orientation, inculturation, prayers for various seasons and related Vatican directives and guidelines.

Some priests, who did not want to be named, doubted the Synod decision´s "peaceful" implementation in all dioceses.

While acknowledging that the Synod has tried to merge different Mass forms, the priests remained skeptical about the compliance of some "conservative dioceses" to the decision.

A priest who found no theological significance in the liturgical dispute regretted that a clash between "progressive and conservative" bishops has degenerated into what he called personality clashes.

"Therefore, it is difficult to say now whether the Synod decision will be unanimously implemented by all SMC dioceses," he told UCA News Nov. 21.

Earlier, the Synod decided to start a mission secretariat at the SMC Major Archiepiscopal Curia to improve the Church´s mission activities.

It nominated Bishop George Punnakkottil of Kothamangalam and Bishop George Alanchery of Thuckalay as SMC representatives for the Federation of Asian Bishops´ Conferences plenary assembly in Bangkok in January 2000.

The Kerala state-based Syro-Malabar Church, a self-governing archiepiscopal Church, is one of three Catholic rites in India. The other two rites are the Latin and the Syro-Malankara.


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