MUMBAI – In the latest escalation in a long-running dispute within India’s Syro-Malabar Church, the administrator of its largest diocese has required all candidates for the priesthood to take a loyalty oath swearing to celebrate the Mass only in the manner prescribed by Church authorities.

Archbishop Andrews Thazhath issued the new oath in a Nov. 23 letter, indicating that all deacons in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly must sign it prior to being ordained to the priesthood.

“Deacons, both religious and eparchial, can be permitted to be ordained priests only when they make the undertaking that they will obey the ecclesiastical authorities and celebrate Syro-Malabar Holy Qurbana only licitly as per the Synodal decision on the uniform mode of celebration,” Thazhath wrote.

“Holy Qurbana” is the term within the Syro-Malabar tradition for the Mass.

In August 2021, the Church’s governing synod decreed that Mass is to be celebrated with the priest facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word, and facing the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. That marked a break with the custom after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) of the priest facing the congregation throughout the Mass, and prompted widespread resistance among both priests and laity in Ernakulam-Angamaly.

The text of the oath, which is attached to the Nov. 23 letter, requires aspiring priests to “promise under oath, placing my hand on the Holy Gospel, that I will obey my ecclesiastical authorities, especially the Supreme Pontiff Pope Francis, the Major Archbishop and my eparchial Bishop /Apostolic Administrator/ the bishop of the place where I serve (in case of Religious/Institute of Consecrated Life).”

“I will celebrate Holy Qurbana only as per the Synodal decision on the uniform mode of celebration and I will not celebrate illicitly against the Synodal decision,” the oath states. “I am aware of the disciplinary sanctions, including suspension/dismissal from priestly ministry in case I disobey the above-mentioned directives of my ecclesiastical authorities.”

In an indication that the oath may be difficult to enforce, priests who’ve been prominent in the resistance to the officially-approved mode of celebrating Mass quickly termed it “mean” and “vengeful.”

“This is obstinacy at its worst, bordering on evil-minded vengeance!” Father Paul Chittinappilly told Crux.

According to Chittinappilly, Thazhath “has not succeeded to celebrate a single holy Mass in any parish during his tenure of the last 16 months, in spite of the massive police force that accompanies him.”

Chittinappilly claimed that aside from four parishes, the other 316 venues in which Mass is celebrated in Ernakulam-Angamaly all do so with the priest facing the people. In that contest, he said, “the insistence of the administrator that these innocent deacons sign a vow that will permit them celebrate Mass only facing the altar can only be termed mean, and vengeful.”

Father Joyce Kaithakottil, another priest who’s been outspoken in resistance to the officially-prescribed changes, accused Thazhath of trying to “blackmail the whole diocese” and asserted that the demand for a loyalty oath prior to ordination is “an unwarranted and unheard demand in the history of the Church.”

Kaithakottil said that Thazhath “knows very well that the deacons could not celebrate the Mass in 50/50 style in their parishes due to the special situation in the archdiocese. The archbishop himself is not able to celebrate the uniform mode of celebration in the archdiocese.”

“Knowing that what he demands is an impossible thing in the archdiocese, he presses it forward for his own personal hidden interests,” Kaithakottil claimed, accusing the administrator of “taking into his hands the lives of deacons and taking revenge upon the priests of the archdiocese who are resisting the autocratic style of the Archbishop Andrews Thazhath.”

Reports suggest that at the moment, eight deacons are awaiting ordination to the priesthood in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly. It was not immediately clear if those deacons plan to take the new oath, although during an early November meeting between the deacons and Thazhath, sources told Crux that they declined to accept the requirement to celebrate the Mass in the new fashion.

Last year, eleven newly ordained priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly announced that they would not accept the prescribed form of celebrating the Mass, instead following the local tradition.

Although the dispute 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.