Editor’s Note: During a recent episode of “Last Week in the Church,” Crux editor John Allen’s weekly video and podcast, Allen made some comments regarding ongoing tensions in India’s Syro-Malabar Church, an eastern church in communion with Rome. Those comments brought a detailed response from Archbishop Joseph Pamplany, who chairs the church’s Commission for Media. The response already has been published by Syro-Malabar Vision, the church’s online communications platform, but in the interests of fairness, Crux also publishes it here in its entirety. The letter has not been edited for content, only for formatting.
Greetings in the name of Our Lord!
I write this letter to you under my capacity as the Chairman of the Commission for Media of the Syro-Malabar Church. I usually follow the articles and other presentations in the Crux, to get an idea of the happenings in the Church, from another perspective. I do appreciate your innovative and powerful presentations.
Recently I came across a video program in your tube channel titled Last Week in the Church with John Allen Jr posted on July 25, 2023, in which you speak about the Synodality in the Syro-Malabar Church. With due respect for your editorial and analytical skills, I am afraid I can’t agree with your presentation, as it is absolutely one-sided misrepresentation of the facts, about which I will explain.
Having listened to your presentation, I made a research into your profile, the profile of Crux together with its vision and mission, with the intention of letting you know our dissent on your comments on the Syro-Malabar Church. Your website www.cruxnow.com gives ample information in this regard. It came to my notice a sentence in the section About us in your website, which says: “Our reputation for unbiased reporting has made us the most trusted English language Catholic news sites in the world”. Then I thought that I should by all means write to you, since your comments are biased and painful to the members of the Syro-Malabar Church. It could be that somebody might have given you feedback which prompted you to do that presentation.
In your presentation, you project the Synodality in the Syro-Malabar Church as an example for a “yellow light what the potential pitfalls of Synodality might be”. In order to substantiate your argument, you continue to narrate the issues in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly from the biased reports you received from your local reporters. I would like to give short explanations regarding the decision of the Synod of Bishops on the uniform mode of celebration of the Holy Qurbana and the issues related to land sale in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
Uniform mode of Celebration in the Syro-Malabar Church
The decision of the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church to implement the uniform mode of celebration of the Holy Qurbana is in no way against the Synodality in the Church and the spirit of the Council. The II Vatican Council Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, says: “All members of the Eastern Rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life, … and, if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions”(No.6).
The renewal of the Liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church, which was Latinized for a long time by the Western Missionaries, was in line with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. You may please note that the decision on the uniform mode of celebration of the Holy Qurbana dates back to November 1999 Session of the Synod. The uniform mode of celebration – the celebrant shall face the faithful at the Bema during the Liturgy of the Word, turn towards the Altar – in the same direction that the faithful are facing – for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and once again face the faithful during the concluding rites after Holy Communion – was an attempt of the Synod to bring an ‘organic improvement’ of the liturgy of the Church, which got stuck by the two schools in the liturgy prevalent in the Church: the celebrant facing the Altar during the entire celebration of the Qurbana and the celebrant facing the congregation during the entire celebration. This decision of the Synod was preceded by discussion in each diocese and also in the Major Archiepiscopal Assembly of the Church. The decision was implemented in the Church except in a few dioceses including the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly owing to pastoral difficulties (always the opposition of priests!), making use of the canonical mechanism of dispensation in accordance with CCEO c.1538 §1. In these dioceses, the Qurbana facing the congregation continued, under the provisions of canonical dispensation.
Again the discrepancies in the mode of celebration of the Holy Qurbana were brought to light during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the Qurbana was live streamed from various churches in different ways. There were complaints regarding the same to the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, which in turn wrote to the Major Archbishop to discuss seriously in the Synod regarding the implementation of the decision already taken in 1999. There was a common consent among the members of the Church that there should be a uniform way of celebrating the liturgy, without leaving the celebrant to celebrate according to his likes and dislikes.
On July 3, 2023, the Holy Father Pope Francis wrote a letter to the entire Syro-Malabar Church paternally exhorting for a prompt implementation of the uniform mode of Holy Qurbana in the Syro-Malabar Church (Letter attached). It was in this context, the Synod of Bishops gathered in Session in August 2021 decided to implement the decision on the uniform mode of celebration in the entire Syro-Malabar Church. This coincided with the promulgation of the revised text of the Holy Qurbana, prepared after extensive discussions in various levels in all the dioceses. The decision came into force on 28 November 2021, the first Sunday of Annunciation. Now, all the 34 dioceses and the Apostolic Visitation in Europe follow the uniform mode of celebration with the single exception of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
The opposition to the implementation of the uniform mode of celebration crossed all limits in the Archdiocese. Since the majority of the priests are against the implementation of the uniform mode, they spread lies and continually made false propaganda against the Major Archbishop, Synod and Apostolic Administrator. Having been reported all that were happening in the Archdiocese, the Holy Father Pope Francis wrote a special letter to the ‘Major Archbishop, Vicar of the Major Archbishop, the priests the religious and lay faithful of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly on March 25, 2022 (Letter attached) asking them to implement the decision of the Synod on the uniform mode of celebration.
The Holy Father proposed that in those places it was difficult to implement the Synodal decision immediately, the canonical dispensation from the implementation of the decision (as per c.1538 para1) could be resorted to, always in view of a future implementation after having given adequate catechesis. But, the protest continued. The priests and the lay leaders were not ready to request for canonical dispensation and obstinately persisted in celebrating the Qurbana facing the congregation. Meanwhile, they burnt the effigies of the Prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches and that of the Major Archbishop, the priests held many rallies on the street against the Church authority, burnt circulars, filed cases in the civil courts against the implementation of the uniform mode, forcefully stopped the celebration of the uniform mode in those churches in the Archdiocese etc.
The Archdiocese is under Apostolic Administration since July 30, 2022. The rebelling priests are not ready to obey the Apostolic Administrator even. Now, a Pontifical Delegate is appointed by Holy Father Pope Francis in the person of Archbishop Cyril Vasil SJ.
Having given this brief narrative of the current problematic situation in the Archdiocese, I would like to bring to your kind attention that your presentation in the video was a kind of glorifying the disobedience to the Holy Father, the Synod, the Major Archbishop and the Apostolic Administrator. It is really painful. It is equal to defame the Synod, the Major Archbishop, the priests, the religious and lay persons of the 34 dioceses in the Church and the Apostolic Visitation.
Actually no Synodality is being practiced in the Archdiocese, as it is the prebyterocracy that reigns with all its might over the desire and opinions of the very vast majority of the lay persons in the Archdiocese who would like to follow the Synodal decision.
Issues related to Land Sale in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly
Now, coming to the issues you mentioned in the presentation regarding the land sale, your comment that Cardinal Alencherry sold off the properties of the Archdiocese “for pennies on the dollar” really echoes the voice of the dissident groups who propagate baseless allegations intentionally to defame the Major Archbishop. With the intention of starting a Medical College, the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly bought some land in 2014, taking a loan from the bank with the consent of the canonical bodies. Later, because of the changed circumstances, the project of the Medical College had to be dropped. Then arose the problem of huge interest of the money taken as loan from the bank. In order to get the Archeparchy out of the burden of bank interest, it was decided in the canonical bodies to sell 5 small pieces of land to pay the debts in the bank. The execution of this collective decision was done by the Finance Officer under the supervision of Cardinal George Alencherry.
It is a fact that from the sale of the properties, the Archeparchy did not get the full amount estimated by the canonical bodies. It is due to many factors that are usually in play in a normal property deal. Cardinal George Alencherry acted in bona fide in the process of sale and due to his timely intervention, the Archeparchy got in possession of two plots of land as guarantee, which have now become the assets of the Archeparchy. Although there was the proposal to sell the two plots procured as a guarantee to reach the amount projected, the sale did not take place due to the opposition from the Curia and some members of the canonical bodies. If the property were sold at that time for the offered price, the Archdiocese would have gained profit and no loss. It can be done even now.
In the process of land sale, as the projected amount did not turn out, there arose a protest headed by some priests who were not even otherwise happy with Cardinal George Alencherry, as he hailed from another region of the Church. Some forged false documents showing the investment made by Cardinal Alencherry in business firms, as a proof for their allegation on the misappropriation of the amount he got from land sale. In this case, three priests of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly and one youth is charge sheeted by the police and the criminal case is on the process in the court.
Fr. Paul Thelakkat, the former spokesperson of the Church, whom Nirmala Calvaho, the reporter of Crux quotes often, is one among the accused in the criminal case of forging fake document against Cardinal George Alencherry. Moreover, seven criminal cases were filed by lay persons supported by the dissident priests against Cardinal Alencherry accusing financial misappropriation and conspiracy against Cardinal and the Finance Officer. The cases are pending for trial in the court. After having filed cases in the court, to do the propaganda in the media on the matter is unethical.
The Synod and Permanent Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church are convinced of the fact that Cardinal Alencherry and those involved in the sale have not made any financial misappropriation in the land deal. All the agencies who made an enquiry on the land deal affirmed that there was no misappropriation of funds by any of them. Moreover, the Police Department of Economic Crimes which made an enquiry in a case filed by one of the lay persons under the patronage of the protesters and submitted a report in the Court giving Cardinal Alencherry a clean chit stating that he has not committed any financial misappropriation and that the criminal charges leveled against him will not stand.
The Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, on the appeal filed by the priests of the Archdiocese against Cardinal George Alencherry, gave its decision in the letter addressed on 21 June 2021 (Prot. No. 29/2021). The Restitution of the loss projected by certain priests has to be done through the sale of the properties which Cardinal Alencherry got registered in the name of the Archdiocese in the process of land sale. Canonical actions should be taken against those who spread lies against Cardinal Alencherry in the land sale. Against this conclusion of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, the interested priests filed an appeal to Signatura Apsotolica, which got rejected. This being the truth, your comments regarding the land sale and personal accusation leveled against Cardinal Alencherry can in no way be justified.
The Syro-Malabar Church has always taken a clear position on various issues whenever the situation demanded the same. The accusation that Cardinal Alencherry has taken a soft approach to the Prime Minister of India to get the criminal cases settled against him, is nothing but a malign comment. I quote here a portion of the Post Synodal Circular of the Major Archbishop after the June 2023 Session of the Synod of Bishops: “The persecution of the Christians in India is on the increase and it is a matter of deep concern and anxiety to all of us. The Manipur riot began as a tribal rivalry, but it has turned to be communal since weeks, but there is no attempt from the concerned to mitigate the casualties. Even if hundreds of people are massacred in this communal insurgency, the government could neither control the attacks nor contain the wicked activities. It is deplorable that even after destroying almost 300 churches and thousands became homeless, the people in power are not yet ready to condemn the activities and disown the rioters. The legislation of laws which limits the freedom of religion promised by the Constitution and thereby silencing the minority is not desirable to democracy. This is the responsibility of the government to protect the minority and to make sure that the constitutional values are not flouted with the support of the majority. Even in Kerala, targeting Christian educational institutions with a communal aim is dreadful” (Text attached).
This text replies to the allegation.
Having said this, I would like to add that in order to keep up your ‘reputation for unbiased reporting’, kindly direct your reporters in India to contact the Major Archiepiscopal Curia or the Media Commission of our Church. We are happy to provide the other part of the story, often untold and misrepresented.
Thanking you for your patient reading,
Yours in the Lord,
Archbishop Joseph Pamplany
Chairman, Commission for Media