MUMBAI – Despite a dramatic threat by a papal delegate to excommunicate priests who failed to comply with orders about how to celebrate Mass from the governing synod of India’s Syro-Malabar Church, the deadline came and went Sunday with only a handful of parishes celebrating Mass in the prescribed fashion and one rebel priest actually suing the papal envoy in a civil court.
In the primatial basilica of the Syro-Malabar Church, St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ernakulam, a recently appointed vicar who attempted to celebrate the Mass in the prescribed fashion was turned back by protestors, and the vicar was forced to announce that Mass is suspended until further notice.
All told, estimates are that only six of 328 parishes in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly actually obeyed the delegate’s warning.
The resistance came in the teeth of an ultimatum issued Aug. 17 by Slovakian Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a Jesuit and the former number two official at the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches, who was appointed by Pope Francis on July 31 as his delegate to Ernakulam-Angamaly, where a swath of priests and laity have been in open rebellion for months.
Vasil had set Sunday, Aug. 20, as the deadline for priests to celebrate Mass in the fashion prescribed the bishops of the church, which envisions the priest facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word but turning toward the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and warned priests who didn’t obey of possible punishments under church law.
That edict has been strongly resisted in Ernakulam-Angamaly, where the custom is for the priest to face the congregation throughout the celebration.
According to a spokesperson for Almaya Munnettam, an association of priests and laity that has been spearheading the opposition, only six parishes actually conducted Mass Sunday in the prescribed fashion, and in another seven cases, Mass was interrupted in churches where there had been an attempt to celebrate according to the new system.
According to a statement, the association “congratulated the priests, more than 450 of them, who courageously stood along with 550,000 believers” in resisting the edict of the church’s synod and the papal delegate.
Father Jose Vailikodath, secretary of the Archdiocesan Protection Council, which has also been leading the opposition, called Vasil’s effort to restore order “an utter fiasco.”
According to Vailikodath, one unnamed priest of the archeparchy filed a complaint against Vasil before a civil magistrate in the region, alleging that Vasil has no authority to threaten punishments against priests since the apostolic administrator of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly is actually Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, who was appointed to that role by Pope Francis in July 2022.
Thazhath issued a statement Sunday strongly backing Vasil and demanding that the dissenting priests comply.
“As the representative for Pope Francis, Archbishop Cyril Vasil announced that from today, August 20, in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, only the synod-sanctioned form of the Eucharistic rite is permitted,” Thazhath said.
“It has been stated in no uncertain terms that all those who have pledged allegiance to the Pope are bound to comply with the delegate’s decision, disobedience to the Pope’s delegate would mean ouster from the Catholic Church,” he said.
On the occasion of their ordination, a pledge was taken on the Bible that the priests would obey the pope and the bishops,” Thazhath said.
Priests leading the opposition have attempted to argue that in so doing they are not actually defying Pope Francis, since, they assert, the pope’s thinking has either been misrepresented by those purporting to act in his name, or he’s been given faulty information about the real situation in the archeparchy.
Father Kaithakottil Joyce, another opposition priest, said that in order to demonstrate loyalty to Pope Francis, clergy in Ernakulam-Angamaly decided to read out the text of a letter signed by the pontiff on March 25, 2022, even though Joyce implied there are doubts about its authenticity.
In that letter, Francis called for compliance with the new mode of celebrating the Mass, saying he knew he was asking for “a difficult and painful step,” yet he was counting on “examples of priests and lay faithful who are ready to listen to the voice of the Lord and trust in the counsel and plea of the Pope.”
“We strongly doubt whether the mind of the Pope is in the letter,” Joyce said, citing other papal texts such as Amoris Laetitia and Evangelii Gaudium which, he asserted, suggest a different approach.
Nevertheless, Joyce said, “In order to publicly proclaim that we are in communion with the pope, we read it.”
The statement from Almaya Munnettam called for Vasil to be recalled, terming his mission “a great failure,” and warned bishops who make up the church’s governing synod, and who are scheduled to begin meetings today, that unless they find a solution in accord with the wishes of the priests and laity, “they will have to face even more stronger protests.”
The synod meetings are scheduled to conclude Aug. 26, and Vasil will address the bishops during one of their sessions.
Father Paul Thelakat, a former spokeperson for the Syro-Malabar Church who’s now sympathetic to the opposition, told Crux he’s surprised by Vasil’s threats, since Western Catholics have engaged in more doctrinally serious dissent without similar punishments.
“Pope Paul VI’s encyclical [Humanae Vitae] was questioned by national bishops’ conferences, and Pope Francis’ theological and pastoral stands have been questioned by cardinals,” he said. “The German church deviates from traditional Catholic positions. We [only] asked for something practiced uninterruptedly for half a century, and now we are told we are schismatic.”
“We always had deep love and allegiances to the pope, we’ve done nothing against our Catholicity,” Thelakat said. “Now they are making us schismatic so that they can punish us seriously.”
Priests and people continue with the strike,” he said. “With folded hands and on my knees, I wait and look to the synod.”
Though he has denied the charges, a criminal complaint currently before an Indian magistrate claims that Thelakat was involved in fabrication of documents to defame Alencherry.
Although the dispute in Ernakulam-Angamaly pivots on the liturgy, observers say that’s also a proxy for other tensions, including questions about financial management under Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, and other matters of ecclesiastical administration.
The Syro-Malabar Church is the second largest eastern Church in communion with Rome, after the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. It has a following estimated at 2.35 million in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and 4.25 million worldwide.