MUMBAI – Shortly after Pope Francis’s personal representative to the troubled Syro-Malabar Church returned to India on Wednesday, a group of some 300 dissident priests held a meeting, among other things demanding a “thorough investigation” of a recent video message from the pontiff calling for obedience.

Slovakian Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a former number two official in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches who’s currently serving as Francis’s legate to the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Ernakulam–Angamaly, arrived back in southern India Dec. 13 after meetings with Vatican officials, including Pope Francis, in Rome.

An earlier mission by Vasil over the summer ended in frustration, as deadlines he had set for adoption of a uniform mode of celebrating Mass in the Syro-Malabar tradition came and went without compliance of a wide swath of priests and laity.

On Dec. 7, Francis accepted the resignations of 78-year-old Cardinal George Alencherry as the Major Archbishop and Archbishop Andrews Thazhath as the Apostolic Administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly. On the same day, he released a video message to the archeparchy, calling them to “reestablish communion and remain in the Catholic Church.”

“I know that for years some people, especially priests who should be examples and true teachers of communion, have been pushing you to disobey and oppose the decisions of the Synod. Brothers and sisters, don’t follow them!” the pope said.

A summary of the Dec. 13 meeting of priests released by Father Jose Vailikodath, representing an “Archdiocesan Protection Council” which has helped lead the resistance, charged that the papal video is “replete with factual errors and ambiguities,” claiming it was crafted by Thazhath and the Dicastery for Eastern Churches “which enforces the pope to sing to its tune without verifying the facts.”

“The pope is infallible when he proclaims on matters of faith and morals,” the statement said. “The pope does not enjoy infallibility when it is about a liturgical rubric during a holy Mass of an individual oriental church. Those who are influential and close to the pope have not apprised him about the facts and prevailing circumstances.”

At the heart of the tensions in Ernakulam-Angamaly is a 2021 decision of the Syro-Malabar synod regarding the celebration of the Mass, known in the Church’s language as the Holy Qurbana. That decree stipulated 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.

The ruling marked a break with the local 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, by far the largest jurisdiction in the 4.25 million-strong Syro-Malabar Church.

Asked by Crux to explain what the alleged errors in the pope’s video are, Father Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the presbyteral council in Ernakulam-Angamaly, listed five points:

  • It’s not just “certain priests” resisting the prescribed form of the Mass, Mundadan said, but the vast majority along with most of the laity.
  • “Acts of disrespect” toward the Eucharist mentioned in the video, Mundadan said, were committed not by those resisting the changes but by those attempting to force compliance.
  • The pope suggested that more “worldly” concerns underly the dispute over the liturgy, but Mundadan insisted that “the real issue is liturgy itself.”
  • The video frames the dispute as an issue of communion, but Mundadan said it’s simply a disagreement over liturgy which “could easily be solved by the bishops of the synod if they have a goodwill.”
  • The video claims that some priests were omitting the name of the Major Archbishop when celebrating the Mass, but Mundadan said “most of the priests are naming the Major Archbishop and praying for him.”

“The meeting unanimously wished that the pope, the head of the global Catholic Church, could have listened to the millions of lay faithful, thousands of priests and religious who hold mass versus populum close to their hearts before sending this video message,” said the statement following the assembly of priests.

The statement said the priests will cooperate with Vasil “if he keeps his promise of holding discussions and dialogue with the archdiocese, its priests, religious and laity,” and also insisted that Thazhath should not “interfere” with archdiocesan affairs.

So far, Vasil and the new apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly, 77-year-old Bishop Bosco Puthur, have not commented on the priests’ demands.