Indian Church’s Bitter Liturgical Dispute Far From Solution

The Vatican-appointed administrator of an archdiocese in India’s Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church faced stiff opposition from priests and laypeople when he tried to introduce uniformity in celebrating Mass. Since then, differences have continued to deepen. 

Newsroom (05/10/2022 8:29 AM Gaudium Press) — The Kerala-based Church’s decades-old liturgical dispute took a dramatic turn as Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, revoked the dispensation which so far allowed the priests to say Mass facing the people.

The prelate, on Sept. 30, attended a priests’ council meeting and directed them to start offering Mass in keeping with the liturgical pattern approved by the 1999 bishops’ synod requiring priests to face the altar and not the congregation during the Eucharistic prayer to Communion.

Priests, however, refused to follow the directive saying it was taken without consultation with the clergy and laypeople of the archdiocese.

Lay people gathered on the premises of the archbishop’s house as the prelate met the priests and explained the circular revoking the dispensation.

Archbishop Thazhath later attended a meeting of the archdiocesan curia, and police were summoned, reportedly by Church officials who feared that the archbishop could be attacked by a group of laypeople who gathered outside the meeting venue.

“It just happened that the police came in only when the curia meeting was happening. And when it ended they escorted out the archbishop,” the priest said.

A team of 20 police personnel escorted Archbishop Thazhath to a waiting taxi, and he proceeded to his archdiocese in Trichur, some 75 kilometres away.

As a security precaution, the police reportedly advised him to take a taxi rather than travel in his official vehicle.

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The small group of laypeople gathered at the meeting shouted slogans asking the prelate to “resign and go back,” apparently angered by his ultimatum to either fall in line or be prepared for disciplinary action.

Priests and believers in the archdiocese vowed to continue with the traditional Mass in which the celebrant faces the congregation.

They burnt copies of the revocation circular issued by Archbishop Thazhath in front of the Archbishop’s House on Oct. 1 as a mark of protest while reminding that they will not allow the synod Mass in any of the churches in their archdiocese.

They also accused the administrator of betraying them, misleading the Vatican, and threatening to block his entry into the Archbishop’s House.

“It is better that the Vatican grant a liturgy variant status to our traditional Mass for which the people of the archdiocese and the priests are demanding. The imposition of synod Mass in the name of uniformity is undermining the unity”, says Father Kuriakose Mundadan, the presbytery council secretary.

He said Pope Francis had asserted “not to impose uniformity at the cost of unity.”

Father Mundadan appealed to the Vatican and the synod to understand the feeling of the people and the priests in the archdiocese and allow them to continue with their traditional Mass.

The liturgical dispute in the Syro-Malabar Church is nearly five decades old. It was revived in August 2021 when the synod decided to implement its 1999 decision for uniformity in Mass celebration across all the dioceses to bring more unity among its members.

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The synod ordered all 35 dioceses to comply with it from November 2021 and barring the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese; all the others fell in line after initial opposition from a few dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Trichur headed by Archbishop Thazhath.

Archbishop Thazhath, an Oriental Code of Canon Law expert, was appointed by the Vatican on July 30 to replace Archbishop Antony Kariyil, the metropolitan vicar of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

Archbishop Kariyil was asked to resign by the Vatican for defying the Syro-Malabar Church’s supreme synod in the liturgical dispute.

Archbishop Thazhath was tasked to win over the defiant priests and laity. Church officials familiar with the developments said would be a considerable task as the liturgical dispute had become an emotional issue.

The archbishop explained his position in a circular, saying he was merely complying with the order of the Vatican.

Riju Kanjookkaran, the spokesperson of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (AMT) said on Oct. 3 that “no priests in the archdiocese will celebrate synod Mass.”

He said around 99 percent of the priests and the faithful in the archdiocese had submitted in writing to Archbishop Thazhath that they wanted to continue with the traditional Mass.

“But he misled the Vatican and tried to push for imposing the synod Mass, which will not be implemented at any cost,” he added.

– Raju Hasmukh with files from UCAN News

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