MUMBAI, India – A group of bishops in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India has joined the protests against a declaration from the Eastern Rite’s Major Archbishop warning those refusing to abide by a synod declaration on the structure of Mass will be excommunicated if they don’t comply by July 3.

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.

The synod required that Mass be celebrated facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word, and facing the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

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That decree, however, was resisted by a swath of clergy and laity in Ernakulam-Angamaly, on the grounds that Mass facing the people throughout the celebration represented their local tradition and is also more in keeping with the liturgical teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

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.

Since Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil and Bishop Bosco Puthur set a deadline for the Ernakulam-Angamaly clergy to comply with Eastern Rite’s Mass structure in a joint pastoral letter issued on June 9, clergy and laypeople have protested, and even set fire to the document.

Five Syro-Malabar bishops have written a joint-letter to Thattil protesting his declaration.

“What is the justification for giving the highest punishment? Ecclesiastical sanctions should be proportionate to the violation,” the bishops wrote.

The signatories are Bishop Ephrem Nariculam of Chanda, Bishop Jose Chittooparambil of Rajkot, Auxilary Bishop Jose Puthenveettil of Faridabad, Bishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of Faridabad, and Bishop Sebastian Adayanthrath of Mandya. All of the bishops in the letter were priests in the Archdiocese Ernakulam-Algamany.

“We all hold on to the decision of the synod on the uniform mode of Holy Qurbana. As you know, we all had signed the last pastoral letter issued by the synod to the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. In all the dioceses of our respective jurisdiction we do follow the uniform mode of celebration,” the bishops wrote.

“Like all the Synodal Fathers, we too are really concerned about finding a peaceful and amicable solution for the current crisis. We feel that in the light of the recent Circular, the whole archdiocese is going to be in a turmoil and that is going to affect each and every one in the archdiocese including our own family members. So, we feel in our conscience to express these concerns,” they continued.

The bishops said they were “really consoled” by the tone of Pope Francis’s message given at a recent audience to the Major Archbishop.

“Holy Father, though insisted on obedience, stressed the need for dialogue to safeguard unity in the Church. Your Beatitude categorically acknowledged in the interview that all the priests of Ernakulam-Angamaly use the approved text of the Holy Qurbana and the only contention is on the rubric which can be solved easily. It is learnt that the Pope told you that ‘yours is a sui iuris Church and the problem should be solved by yourselves in the synod.’ But, to our great dismay, such a serious Circular was issued without seeking the opinion of the scheduled online synod,” the bishops wrote.

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“We, as members of the synod, had the responsibility given by the Holy Father to look at this issue collectively and come up with a viable solution. How is it possible that such a serious decision that would have derived from the synod, was already prepared in advance before the synod?” they asked.

“What is the justification for giving the highest punishment? Ecclesiastical sanctions should be proportionate to the violation. Where is the place for the medicinal character of ecclesiastical punishment which the Oriental code is famous for! Again, where is the place for the benevolence we preach? Can we as shepherds impose on our faithful something that will weigh on their conscience for a matter of not following a mere rubric, which is not part of the faith and morals? Can we claim to be good pastors after the model of the Lord who is the Good Shepherd? The resistance regarding the implementation of the rubric, in no way, we justify. Still, what we feel is that we have to take a benevolent approach in implementing it. Wherever possible, it should be implemented, but taking the priests and people into confidence,” they continued.

The five bishops said the narrative of the issuance of the Circular letter gives them a “serious matter for worry,” since it was leaked from the Chancery.

They said the “big question” is who “masterminded the whole process,” and asked if the members of the Synod should remain simply silent spectators of the issue.

They said twelve bishops had cautioned they Syro-Malabar synod about the crisis the imposition of the new Mass would cause.

“Our apprehension was not even taken to discussion and a widespread impression was created as a ‘unanimous’ decision. We are very sad that our warning, that such going back would bring about big disaster, which is happening now in our Church, was not given any consideration,” the five bishops wrote.

“ We are afraid that it may lead to an erosion of faith in our community and a severe law-and-order situation in the Archdiocese. It is so heartbreaking to be witnesses of this drastic action which goes against our consciences,” they added.

The five bishops told the Major Archbishop the synod failed truly to be “synodal” in its proper sense.

“We, the Shepherds, should confess with all humility that we failed in being prudent and merciful pastors, and to listen seriously to our own brother bishops. In these desperate times, when people are emotionally charged, we should not lose hope, instead relying on the intervention of Holy Spirit, we should take courage to keep dialoguing with the priests, religious and people,” they said.