MUMBAI – A papal delegate tasked with resolving a bitter dispute in India’s Syro-Malabar Church threw down a gauntlet Aug. 15, pointedly suggesting to dissenting clergy that they could be removed from the priesthood, just hours after a raucous protest had forced the delegate to enter the church’s central basilica under a police escort.
“Are you with the Holy Father, do you wish to remain priests and members of the Catholic Church and of your Syro-Malabar Church, or do you wish to give preference to the voice of troublemakers who lead you towards disobedience to the Holy Father, to the legitimate pastors of your Syro-Malabar Church and to the Catholic Church?” asked Archbishop Cyril Vasil in a Mass for the Feast of Assumption.
Vasil, a former number two official in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches, was appointed by Pope Francis on July 31 as his delegate to the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the largest jurisdiction in the Syro-Malabar Church, where a swath of priests and laity have been in open rebellion for months over a new mode of celebrating the Mass.
In effect, that new method requires the priest to face the altar during the Eucharistic prayers, while the custom in Ernakulam-Angamaly is for the priest to do so facing the congregation.
That liturgical dispute reflects larger tensions over leadership under Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, and the other bishops who make up the church’s governing synod.
In his Aug. 15 homily, Vasil issued a similar challenge to laity.
“Are you ready to follow the Holy Father and the Catholic Church; or do you prefer to put your trust in some of your priests, who want to cover their personal disobedience to the Holy Father under your name?” he asked.
The remarks came after Vasil had attempted to enter St. Mary’s Basilica, the primatial see of the Syro-Malabar Church, the evening before to lead a prayer service but was stopped at the gate by a large crowd of priests and parishioners.
Protestors have effectively shut down the basilica for months, objecting to a new mode of celebrating the Mass decreed by the church’s synod and endorsed by the Vatican.
A phalanx of roughly 100 police officers escorting Vasil led him into the basilica through a side entrance, reportedly using force to move protestors out of the way.
Afterwards, the new vicar of the basilica, Father Antony Poothavelil, filed a criminal complaint against roughly 100 people over the protests, including the leaders of two of the major dissenting groups, the Archdiocese Protection Committee and Almaya Munnetram.
Poothavelil, who was appointed to his post in early July after the previous vicar had been fired for supporting the protests, charged the accused with unlawful assembly, intimidation and destruction of property, claiming that the scuffles had caused a few hundred dollars in damage.
Clergy leading the protests accused Poothavelil of using the threat of police action to attempt to compel acceptance of the new liturgical rules.
The next day, while Vasil was laying down his challenge in another church, the dissenting clergy and laity staged a Mass at St. Mary’s Basilica with the priest facing the congregation, and then held a public meeting outside which drew a crowd of hundreds.
“The priests and the faithful of Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly never disobeyed popes in its history. We do not want to disobey Pope Francis,” said Father Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the presbyteral council for the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
“But the decision of the Syro-Malabar Synod on the mode of celebration was taken violating the synodal procedure on liturgical matters,” Mundadan said. “Pope Francis was misguided by some prominent bishops that there was factual error in his exhortation about the implementation of uniform mode of celebration.”
In his homily, Vasil warned the dissenting clergy and laity that their protests will not cause the pope or the bishops to back down.
“The only fruit of continued protest and rejection will be the great harm to the Church, great scandal before those who observe us, and the spiritual damage that is the fruit of disobedience to God’s will,” he said.
“Do you really want to be responsible for the grave sin of such a disobedience?” Vasil asked.
“There can never be God’s blessing on disobedience to His will – no matter how much you try to cover it up with pious phrases and even prayers,” he said. “There will never be God’s blessing on illegal protests and rebellion.”
“On my knees I ask you to no longer participate in this sin against our Lord and the Catholic Church, namely, in refusing to celebrate Holy Qurbana in the only legitimate way, the way approved by the Holy Father,” Vasil said, using the term for the Mass in the Syro-Malabar tradition.