MUMBAI – In a clear sign that a vicious fight over liturgy in Catholicism’s second largest eastern church is far from resolved, the papally appointed administrator of a basilica in southern India has been forced to issue a statement insisting it’s not his fault the basilica has been closed for six months.

The dispute is unfolding within the Syro-Malabar Church, which traces its origins to the Apostle Thomas. In 2021, the church’s synod decided to adopt a uniform mode of celebrating the liturgy, which priests face the people during the Liturgy of the Word and then the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, turning around again to address the congregation after communion.

While virtually all of the church’s dioceses have adopted the new system, clergy and laity in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, by far the largest Syro-Malabar jurisdiction, have rejected it, arguing that facing the people throughout the Mass is a legitimate liturgical variation and one more consistent with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The opposition also argues there’s a jarring contrast between Pope Francis’s emphasis on synodality, and what they see as the authoritarian manner in which the new liturgical approach is being imposed.

Tensions reached a fever pitch a year ago, when Pope Francis tapped Archbishop Andrews Thazhath as his new apostolic administrator at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, with the clear mandate of making the new liturgical rules stick.

Since then, the basilica has been essentially unusable as protests, street scuffles and occasional acts of vandalism have prevented regular celebration of the Mass.

On May 26, protestors opposed to the new liturgy gathered anew in front of St. Mary’s, accusing Thazhath of being responsible for it being shut. In response, the media commission of the Syro-Malabar church issued a May 27 statement calling that charge “false propaganda.”

“The Apostolic Administrator had gone to celebrate Holy Mass as per his duty on November 27, 2022,” the statement said. “But he was obstructed by a group of people, most of whom came in 46 vehicles from different parts. [The] administrator had to return without celebrating Holy Mass. Due to the agitation by opposing groups that followed on that day, police intervened and civil authorities closed the basilica.”

“The basilica was later opened before Christmas 2022 at the request of the administrator. Since the basilica’s vicar was not ready to celebrate Holy Mass as decided by Church authorities, the key was given to the newly appointed administrator of the Basilica who was ready to celebrate Holy Mass as per norms of law,” the statement said.

“But soon some people including priests occupied the basilica. Later, during 23-24 December, some priests started continuous celebration of Holy Mass seriously violating the laws of the Church. Provoked by this celebration, some faithful went to the sanctuary and stopped the protest celebration by pulling the altar to the side. Police intervened and pulled the people out of the basilica.”

“Later, representatives of [various] groups … and some parishioners approached the police. As per their understanding, in the presence of the police, the basilica was again closed. Apostolic Administrator Andrews Thazhath came to know of it only later. Therefore, the allegation that the Archbishop Administrator is responsible for the closure of the basilica is totally false,” the statement said.

“As per the laws of the Church, especially the decision of the Synod, directives from Roman/Papal authorities and Papal appointment of the Apostolic Administrator, Holy Mass could be celebrated in the Basilica only in the uniform mode approved by the Synod. Any other way of celebration will be against the law of the Catholic Church.”

“The Apostolic Administrator is again seeking the cooperation of the vicar and parishioners of the cathedral basilica to re-open the basilica and celebrate the Holy Mass in the legitimate way,” the statement said.