MUMBAI – In what amounts to the latest failure to resolve an almost 25 year-old liturgical feud, a six-day meeting of bishops of the Syro-Malabar church concluded Saturday without any new consensus on how Mass ought to be celebrated.
Centered in the southern Indian state of Kerala, the Syro-Malabar Church has more than four million followers worldwide, making it the second-largest of the Eastern churches in communion with Rome after the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine.
Since at least the 1990s, members of the church have been divided over the proper way to celebrate their version of the Mass, known as the “Holy Qurbana.” Historically, some branches of the church celebrated ad populum, meaning facing the people, for virtually the entire liturgy, while others did so ad orientem, meaning facing the East.
In 1999, the church’s bishops agreed on a compromise formula: The Mass would be facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word, and facing East during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. That agreement broke down in practice, however, when some elements of the church refused to accept it, especially the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the largest diocese in the church with around a half-million followers,
Pope Francis intervened last July, insisting on a uniform liturgy based on the 1999 formula, which was supposed to be adopted in August. Efforts to enforce it, however, have been met with resistance including street fights, hunger strikes, the burning of pastoral letters and the burning in effigy of Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Just before Christmas, a melee over the Mas broke out in a cathedral in southern India, where police had to be summoned to break up a mob scene that included dragging the altar across the sanctuary and scattering sacred vessels on the ground.
In response to the failure of the recent meeting of the Syro-Malabar Synod to resolve the dispute, Alencherry put out a statement insisting that only the bishops and the Vatican can make liturgical decisions, and the future discussions must take the uniform liturgy as a point of departure.
Alencherry said a six-member committee of bishops had been formed to study the issue, including multiple discussions with those who oppose and support the uniform Mass, curia members, prominent laity, and so on. The cardinal said those discussions are ongoing, with the aim of providing adequate time for parishes to implement the uniform Mass.
“The hope of bishops at the synod was to start the process of reconciliation by starting the uniform mass at the Cathedral basilica at least on Sundays,” the circular said. Those opposing the uniform Mass balked, rendering the synod unable to declare a decision which could be welcomed by everyone, the statement said, adding that discussions would continue.
Commenting on the violent incidents at the Ernakulam Cathedral Basilica before Christmas, the statement said priests who used the Holy Mass as a mode of protest and people who encroached upon the altar both inflicted deep wounds on the Church. A report on the issue would be sent to Rome and action taken accordingly, it said.
Meanwhile, representing the priests of Ernakulam-Angamaly, Father Jose Vailikodath said they would continue to say Mass facing the people, claiming that Alencherry’s statement creates more problems than it solves.
Father Paul Thelakat, a former spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar synod, told Crux the dissenters would not object if uniformity were being imposed “on a matter of faith or morals.”
“But what they decide to impose is a simple matter of a ritual,” he said. “There are many options in the Mass text, you can have the Mass very solemn or very short. You can have four readings or only two readings.”
“All we are asking is something we were already doing, [which is] to have the complete Mass facing the people,” Thelakat said. “It is only a question of orientation, where there is nothing wrong at all.”
Thelakat cited a warning by the Vatican envoy in India that the quest for uniformity should not create disunity, and also quoted a text by Pope Francis in which he says that seeking a rigid uniformity is not a Christian attitude.
“I am also reminded of Patriarch Sako of the Chaldean Church [of Iraq] recently, in a talk on the Middle Eastern churches,” Thelakat said. “He reminded us that as enemy forces were gathering at the gates of the city of Constantinople [in the 15 century], Byzantine theologians were arguing about the gender of angels.”
“I’m afraid we are in a similar situation,” Thelakat said.