MUMBAI – A potential deal to end a long-running liturgical and administrative dispute in India’s Syro-Malabar Church, which has seen a cathedral-basilica and minor seminary forcibly closed and priestly ordinations delayed, appeared to fall apart in early November after compromise proposals brokered in August failed to take effect.
More than 200 Syro-Malabar priests gathered Nov. 7 in the major archbishop’s house in Ernakulam, the archdiocese that’s the epicenter of the dispute, to protest the handling of the dispute by Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, who, since July 2022, has been acting as the papally appointed administrator of the troubled archdiocese.
Thazhath is also the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India and the Archbishop of Trichur in Kerala.
“We will inform the Catholic bishops across the globe with documents about the decisions of the apostolic administrator to destroy the future of the archdiocese,” the priests said in a statement issued after their session.
“Archbishop Thazhath’s way of functioning damages the very image of the Pope, who insists that the church is not only the Pope and bishops but also the people of God,” the priests’ statement asserted. “Synodality as advocated by the Church means that everyone, including the last one, must be heard.”
Repeated requests from Crux for comment from a spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church went unanswered.
According to participants, that Nov. 7 gathering came after a meeting between representatives of the priests and Thazhath, in which the priests asked that a minor seminary which has been closed since August.
At the time, Thazhath had demanded that priests who serve in the minor seminary celebrate Mass in the fashion approved by the synod of the Syro-Malabar Church, which envisions the priest facing the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word and facing the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Most priests in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly insist instead on facing the people throughout the Mass, arguing that doing so is both their local tradition and also consistent with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
On Nov. 3, Thazhath also met with eight Syro-Malabar deacons who had been scheduled for ordination to the priesthood in December, informing them they ordinations would be suspended unless the agreed to celebrate Mass in the approved fashion. According to sources who spoke to Crux, the deacons declined.
Sources involved in the dispute said that in late August, a working group composed of nine bishops and representatives of priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly reached a series of proposals to resolve the dispute. While those proposals have not been made public, in general they outlined a compromise plan in which the synod’s mode for the Mass would be adopted on Sundays in the cathedral-basilica of St. Mary’s, the minor seminary and a major pilgrimage center, while elsewhere priests would be free to celebrate in the manner they see fit.
The proposals also envisioned priests professing their obedience to Pope Francis and the authorities of the Syro-Malabar Church, while threatened disciplinary action would be halted.
In the wake of the meeting with Thazhath, however, priests who participated told Crux they fear that Thazhath and Slovakian Archbisjop Cyril Vasil, a former number two official in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Church who was tapped as Pope Francis’s personal delegate in early August to try to end the standoff, intend to “sabotage” the proposals.
“Instead of trying to resolve the issues, Archbishop Thazhath has aggravated the situation,” Father Paul Chittinappilly, a senior member of the Priests Council in Ernakulam and a member of the Archdiocesan Protection Forum of Priests, told Crux.
According to Chittinappilly, Thazhath met the priests after returning from Rome, where he took part in the Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops on Synodality, and informed them that the proposals could not be implemented because they were not approved by the Holy See.
Chittinappilly expressed skepticism about that explanation.
“Anyone who has a minimum knowledge of the mode of decision-making in the Catholic Church knows that the Holy See or the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches would not reject a solution formula approved by the synod of that Church,” he said. “Pope Francis is always a respecter of synodal decisions.”
Chittinappilly said the priests told Thazhath that they will pull out of the agreement unless he ends his “his dictatorial methods of implementing the uniform mode of celebration of the Eucharist.”
“If the administrator wants to defy the synod and resorts to old Grand Inquisition methods, they say, they would personally face the consequences rather than letting the whole Archdiocese into a chaotic pastoral situation,” he said.
Father Joyce Kaithakottil, another priest who’s prominent among those protesting Thazhath’s role, called for him to be removed.
“It is natural that those who love the Church which Pope Francis envisions would surely make a campaign to get Archbishop Thazath removed from his post, [which would be] good not only for the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly but also for the Catholic church in India,” he said.
Although the liturgical dispute has been the most visible source of tension in Ernakulam-Angamaly, observers say it’s the only one. Protestors also object to other aspects of church leadership and administrator, including a controversial series of real estate transactions for which 78-year-old Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, faces seven criminal charges before Indian courts.