MUMBAI – An agreement in principle to resolve a long-running liturgical dispute within India’s Syro-Malabar Church reportedly is now at risk of falling apart after having been rejected by Pope Francis’s personal delegate.
A leading lay movement also has expressed its own opposition to the agreement, leaving its fate in serious doubt.
According to sources in the Syro-Malabar Church, a nine-bishop commission and a group of priests representing the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, where the controversy has been concentrated, had brokered a deal which was approved by the synod of bishops before being forwarded to Slovakian Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a former number two official in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches currently representing the pope in the standoff.
Rather than signing off on the agreement, Vasil reportedly rejected it and instead demanded that priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly comply with the new uniform mode of celebrating the Mass by the end of the year or face disciplinary action.
Officials of the Syro-Malabar Church did not respond to a Crux request for comment.
The dispute dates to 2021, when the governing synod of the Syro-Malabar church, composed of its bishops and led by Cardinal George Alencherry, decided to require that Mass be celebrated facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word, and facing the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The decision was intended to create uniformity across the Church.
That decree, however, was resisted by a swath of clergy and laity in Ernakulam-Angamaly, the largest jurisdiction in the Syro-Malabar Church and its primatial diocese, on the grounds that Mass facing the people throughout the celebration represented their local tradition and is also more in keeping with the liturgical teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
The clash has led to occasional physical confrontations, and effectively shut down the central basilica of the Syro-Malabar Church for months.
In late July, Pope Francis appointed Vasil as a Pontifical Delegate to try to resolve the dispute. Instead of undertaking negotiations, Vasil set August 20 as a deadline for all priests to implement the new uniform Mass or face suspension, but reports suggests that only a handful of the 328 parishes in Ernakulam-Angamaly actually complied.
Afterwards, the nine-member commission met with a delegation of 12 priest representatives. Reportedly, a proposed agreement was reached according to which Mass facing the people throughout would continue to be allowed in Ernakulam-Angamaly, with exceptions made for the primatial basilica of St. Mary’s, the minor seminary and an international pilgrimage shrine.
Moreover, the priests agreed to celebrate Mass in the fashion prescribed by the synod at least once in every parish, in response to a papal request to implement the uniform Mass in March 2022. Meanwhile, it was also agreed that bishops appointed to the archdiocese would be permitted to celebrate Mass facing the people throughout the liturgy in the same manner as priests.
Vasil, however, reportedly turned down the agreement, insisting instead on implementation of the uniform mode for the Mass across the board.
Priests who have objected to the new system indicated they intended to continue to press the fight.
“It is unfortunate to say that bishops think that at gun point they can make the priests obey whatever is commanded,” said Father Joyce Kaithakottil. “As far as I understand, except a handful of priests, no one would obey under the threat of punishment.”
Kaithakottil rejected claims that the priests pushing back are “rebels” or “dissidents,” noting that of the 12 priests who negotiated the agreement with the bishops, six teach in major seminaries of the Syro-Malabar Church, one is a former major seminary rector, and two are former diocesan chancellors.
“We are ready to accept in principle the decision of the synod on the mode of celebration, even though they took the decision violating the procedural steps,” Kaithakottil said. “They have to show magnanimity to accept a change in the rubric of celebration which is not an essential part of liturgy.”
“The solution is possible only when synod understands the ground realities of the people and the pastoral situation of the archdiocese,” he said.
Meanwhile, a lay organization which has been leading resistance to the uniform method of the Mass has signaled its own rejection of the proposed agreement.
Almaya Munnettam, the lay group, expressed its view in a Sept. 7 meeting with the same bishops who had earlier met with the priests. The group insisted that before Mass in the uniform mode can be celebrated in churches, approval must be obtained from parish councils and a general assembly of parishioners.
The group also informed the nine-member bishops’ commission that until a solution is found, it will continue to oppose Masses in the uniform style in churches and religious houses throughout the archeparchy.