“The insoluble” liturgical quarrel of a Syro-Malabar diocese
A hunger strike led by four priests and faithful in January; a former archbishop forced to resign in July; a blockade in front of the archdiocese in recent weeks; and even more recently, clashes on the sidelines of a mass… After months of escalation, the situation has reached, according to the Indian press, “an explosive stadium” in the Indian diocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. In this Eastern rite diocese, an old dispute opposes the majority of the clergy and the faithful on one side, to the hierarchy of the Syro-Malabar Church and the Vatican on the other.
This conflict is rooted in the refusal, by the protesters, to apply a measure which aimed to standardize the liturgy of the Mass, while this Church was crossed, since its attachment to Rome at the end of the XVIe century, by tugging between oriental traditions and a more « Latinized » rite. This measure of compromise had been voted by the Syro-Malabar bishops unanimously during their Synod of 1999.
Concretely, “this compromise required priests to celebrate half of the Holy Mass – the “HolyQurbana” (Eucharist, editor’s note) – facing the congregation, and the other facing east, towards the altar”according to “50/50 formula”traced back to The cross Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church.
However, internal resistance has delayed the implementation of this synodal decision, particularly in Kerala. “It has been sixty years, since Vatican II, that we have celebrated all the Mass in front of the faithful. It makes no sense, historically and culturally, to change. We are very largely in the majority, priests and lay people, to think that here”, explains a refractory priest, joined by The cross.
In front of the sling, Pope Francis got personally involved in the file. « Unity prevails over conflict » he hammered in a letter addressed to the Syro-Malabar Church in July 2021. He urged the parishes to comply – from the following autumn – with the “50/50 formula”, for “greater ecclesial communion”.
“Today, 34 of the 35 dioceses of our Church respect this”, says Cardinal Alencherry. Why is the diocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly the only one still resisting? « There is a tradition of ancient liturgical indiscipline here, which has been politically exploited against the backdrop of a deeper crisis of authority », advances a source close to the Vatican. So much so that the nuncio in India demanded last July the resignation of former archbishop Mgr Antony Kariyil, who refused to impose the unified rite.
To succeed him, Rome has appointed an apostolic administrator, Bishop Andrews Thazhat (1). “But its governance, deemed too authoritarian, is highly contested,” points out an Indian priest. Since his arrival, the religious leader has indeed come up against an unprecedented revolt, while 200 local priests called in mid-October for a boycott of his pastoral instructions, and a blockade movement was launched in mid-November in front of the archdiocese.
Last reversal in date, clashes broke out Sunday, November 27 in front of the Sainte-Marie cathedral of Ernakulam, where Bishop Thazhat intended to apply the new formula. Seven people were arrested by the police before being released.
To initiate a de-escalation, attempts at mediation were relaunched at the end of November. “A commission with three bishops has been set up to continue the dialogue with the clergy and the laity, says Cardinal Alencherry, who asked all the faithful to pray for a « amicable settlement » of this conflict, apparently « unsolvable ». Slingers demand to get a “permanent liturgical dispensation”, as well as the return of their former archbishop, Msgr. Kariyil, to the diocese. Otherwise, some threaten to separate from the Catholic Church.
A scenario ruled out by Cardinal Alencherry who remains confident, while the situation of the diocese should be discussed at the next assembly of Syro-Malabar bishops in January. “I do not believe in the risk of a schism, he insists, the priests could not decide this alone, and the people of the faithful, too attached to the Church of Rome, could not accept it. »