MUMBAI – A recent change of leadership in India’s Syro-Malabar Church apparently doesn’t mean a change in policy on a long-running liturgical dispute, as the Church’s governing synod under its new top prelate has once again called for obedience regarding a contested mode of celebrating the Mass.

And, once again, dissident priests and laity within the Church have warned of resistance should the bishops not reverse course.

At the close of a Jan. 13 meeting of the 49 bishops who make up the synod, the prelates signed a joint letter calling for the Mass, known in Syro-Malabar tradition as the Holy Qurbana, to be celebrated in a uniform manner throughout the Church, including in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Algamany.

The bishops cited a Christmas video message from Pope Francis calling for adherence to the unified form of celebration.

“We, the synod fathers of Syro-Malabar, wish to address you with one mind…We have the responsibility to obey the Holy Father who is the head of the Church. Hence, we hope you would bear witness to the unity of the Catholic Church disregarding the differences of opinion,” the letter said.

The Syro-Malabar Church, with an estimated following of 4.25 million worldwide, is the second largest of the eastern Churches in communion with Rome. Ever since its synod decided in 2021 to adopt a new, unified mode of celebrating the Mass, the Church has been gripped by controversy, above all in its largest jurisdiction of Ernakulam-Algamany.

There, a broad swath of priests and laity have insisted that the so-called “50-50” Mass, with the priest facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word and the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, is contrary to the post-Vatican II local custom of the priest facing the congregation throughout.

The dispute occasionally has turned nasty, with angry public protests and the burning of decrees in public. St. Mary’s Cathedral in the archdiocese has been closed for the last two Christmas seasons amid the controversy.

There had been hope that the rejection election of a new Major Archbishop, Raphael Thattil, in tandem with the appointment of a new apostolic administrator in Ernakulam-Algamany, Bishop Bosco Puthur, might pave the way for a compromise solution.

The letter from the synod, however, appears to suggest the bishops remain committed to implementation of the uniform Mass without substantial changes.

In the wake of the bishops’ statement, Puthur issued a circular letter to all priests, religious and laity in Ernakulam-Algamany, indicating that the synod had urged everyone to adopt the uniform Mass and asking that the letter from the synod be read out at the halfway point of all Masses in the archdiocese on Sunday, Jan. 21, with copies distributed to Mass-goers.

“I once again remind you all to bear witness to the unity of the Church by conducting the unified form of mass,” Puthur wrote, calling for implementation even if there are differences of opinion within the archdiocese.

Reaction from priests and laity who have been leading the opposition to the uniform Mass was negative.

“We had organized a reception on Saturday, Jan. 13, to felicitate Mar Raphael Thattil, who addressed us saying that he knows that we are wounded and has come to heal our wounds, and that he was listening to us not just with one ear, but with both ears open,” said Father Jose Vailikodath of the Archdiocesan Protection Committee in Ernakulam-Algamany.

“However, like a politician he changed [his position] and issued this circular,” Vailikodath told Crux.

Vailikodath issued a statement urging Thattil to withdraw the circular letter immediately, and to live up to his pledges to listen carefully to the priests and laity of the archdiocese.

A lay organization in the archdiocese called Almaaya Munnettam, which has played a lead role in organizing protests against the uniform mode of celebrating the Mass, likewise issued a statement asserting that the circular letter suggests that Thattil’s rhetoric about dialogue is contradicted by his actions.

If there is an effort to implement the synod’s decree by force, the group warned, they will put up even stronger resistance.