MUMBAI – In a sign that it may be easier to change leadership than to change hearts and minds, a fresh appeal for obedience from the new head of the Syro-Malabar Church has failed to resolve the world’s nastiest liturgical dispute, as observers say the vast majority of parishes in the Church’s largest jurisdiction simply ignored the directive.
The appeal came from the governing synod of the Syro-Malabar Church, shortly after the election of new Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil. In it, the 49 bishops who make up the Church’s synod called on priests and laity in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the historical center of the Syro-Malabar tradition, to implement a uniform method of celebrating the Mass the bishops first decreed in 2021.
“We hope that you would bear witness to the unity of the Catholic Church disregarding the differences of opinion,” the letter of the bishops said in their letter, which was forwarded to all clergy in Ernakulam-Angamaly.
Over the last three years, the archdiocese has been gripped by controversy, as a wide swath of priests and laity have rejected the uniform method, which envisions the celebrant facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word and the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in favor of the local custom of the priest facing the congregation throughout.
The dispute has featured angry protests and the public burning of decrees, and St. Mary’s Cathedral in the archdiocese has been closed for the last two Christmas seasons amid the dispute.
In an effort to turn a page, the bishops of the synod had directed that their Jan. 13 circular letter should be read out in all churches in Ernakulam-Angamaly during Sunday Masses on Jan. 21. However, according to a lay group that’s helped lead the dissent called Almaaya Munnettam, the letter was actually read aloud in just 10 of the 328 churches and other places of worship in the archdiocese.
That blackout came, the group said, after a priests’ group called the Archdiocese Protection Committee had decided to defy the order to read the letter aloud.
According to the group, the so-called “50/50” Mass decreed by the synod was celebrated in only five churches in the archdiocese, while the remaining 323 followed the local tradition of facing the people during the entire liturgy.
A spokesman for Almaaya Munnettam asserted that a rival group devoted to implementing the uniform Mass deliberately tried to provoke confrontations at a few churches, in a bid to justify interventions by either church authorities or the police, if not both.
Meanwhile, Samyuktha Sabha Samrakshana Samithi, a laity group supporting the synod decision, called on the new apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, Bishop Bosco Puthur, to take disciplinary action against priests who are not conducting the synodal Mass.
A spokesman for the group said priests who refused to read the circular issued by the synod at churches and to conduct the Mass, known in Syro-Malabar tradition as the Holy Qurbana, in the prescribed fashion, should face consequences.
A lack of disciplinary action, the group asserted, was leading to repeated violations.
A priest who’s helped lead the resistance to the uniform Mass told Crux that by demanding obedience ahead of dialogue efforts, the new administration of the church is putting the cart before the horse.
“The bishops are trying to cure a problem without properly diagnosing the root cause of it,” said Father Kuriakose Mundadan, Secretary Presbyteral Council of Ernakulam- Angamaly.
“Circular after circular cancels the credibility of the Syro-Malabar bishops among the faithful,” Mundadan said.
Mundadan also claimed that even in the 10 churches where priests did read the bishops’ directive aloud, some did so while adding a “sharp comment” to the effect that he would not implement the uniform Mass unless the entire archdiocese takes it up unanimously.
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.