MUMBAI, India – Syro-Malabar Church leaders in India are threatening to excommunicate priests who do not comply with facing the altar during Mass by July.

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.

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. The letter is also supposed to be read in all parishes on June 16.

The circular said Catholics that participating in a Syro-Malabar Mass not following the synod-approved structure after July 3 would not be fulfilling their Sunday obligation.

“Those who fail to submit the undertaking within the stipulated time will be barred from engaging in priestly duties,” said the circular.

“Priests who do not obey our decision from July 3 will be treated as those who have left the Catholic Church fraternity. Such priests will be barred from offering Holy Mass in the Catholic Church from July 3,” the statement says.

In a meeting held after the decree was announced, around 300 priests said that they will continue to offer Mass facing the people even after July 3.

Father Kuriakose Mundadan told Crux the Major Archbishop had called an online synod on June 14 to discuss about the liturgical impasse in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

“And some of the synod members few influential bishops had already expressed their disagreement on this point of those not celebrating the unified Mass by July 3rd would be excommunicated,” the priest said.

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“When the senior synod members, knew of the opposition from the few synod bishops, in a mischievous way, the previous evening they released the draft of the synod without a signature,” he claimed.

“There is lots of discussion on the circular which is unlawful and being released before June 14th. Instead of condemning the very act of unlawful releasing of the draft, at our surprise, there appeared a real circular with the signatures of Major Archbishop and the Apostolic Administrator but with the same content of the unlawful circular. This is abominable and so unbecoming of a Synod. So the priests do not accept this circular,” Mundadan added.

Riju Kanjookaran of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency, which opposes the reformed liturgy, told UCA News the new decree will change nothing.

“Let me make it very clear we are not going to accept the Synod-approved Mass,” he said on June 10.

“This is an arbitrary decision taken without consulting our priests and lay leaders, and nobody is bound to comply with it,” Kanjookaran added.

“It clearly shows that the Synod does not want to listen to either priests or the laity. They instead want to have their way,” he said.

Almaya Munnettam (Lay People to the Fore), a group in the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church opposed to the synod-recommended Mass, rejected the letter from the synod, and burned copies of it in front of the archbishop’s house on Monday.

In a meeting with Thattil on May 13 in the Vatican, Pope Francis referenced the ongoing dispute with the Syro-Malabar Church.

“This is where the devil — the devil exists — the divider, creeps in thwarting the most heartfelt desire the Lord expressed before he sacrificed himself that we, his disciples, would be one, without divisions, without breaking communion,” the pope said.