India: Syro-Malabar Church on the Brink of Schism?

Source: FSSPX News

The Archbishop’s House in Ernakulam-Angalamy

This title has already been used in recent months, but it seems that the breaking point has been reached, or is really on the verge of being reached, unless a solution is found to the blockage between the bishops on one side, and the numerous priests and faithful on the other. An ultimatum was in fact issued by Archbishop Raphael Thattil, the compliance date is set for July 3.

It seemed that things might settle down. The election of the new Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church in January was received rather favorably. And on May 13, Francis received the main members of the Syro-Malabar hierarchy, as well as a delegation of lay people from the eparchy.

But tensions rose sharply after the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, Raphael Thattil, published an ultimatum letter on June 9, 2024, co-signed by Bosco Puthur, apostolic administrator of the diocese of Ernakulam -Angalamy, in which 450 priests and 500,000 faithful refuse to follow the rubrics of the Mass approved by the synod of this Church.

For the record, a liturgical dispute has been going on for decades. According to a – recent – ​​ tradition the priest faces the people throughout the celebration of Mass. According to ancient tradition, the priest celebrates facing the altar, away from the people. A synod held in August 2021 came to a compromise decision: the celebrant is “face the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and then faces the people again after Communion.” This is the new “uniform” liturgy.

As The Pillar recalls, “the synod has faced fierce resistance in the Ernakulam-Angalamy archeparchy – the Syro-Malabar Church’s most populous and prominent diocese – where most priests and laity want the version of the Eucharistic liturgy in which the priest faces toward the people throughout to be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant.”

The 4-page ultimatum warns that on July 3 “which falls on the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, who is considered the Syro-Malabar Church’s founder,” notes Asianews, “priests who do not comply with this final instruction of our and who celebrate the Holy Eucharist after July 3 in a manner different from the uniform liturgy will be considered to have left the communion of the Catholic Church,” quotes The Pillar.

The letter, adds the same newspaper “canonically defining failure to comply as schism and carrying a penalty of excommunication. These priests will be barred from priestly ministry in the Catholic Church from July 4, 2024, without further warning.” The letter further notes that “marriages performed by priests prohibited by the Church from performing priestly services will be void.”

The protesters' response was violent. Ucanews reports that Puthur was expelled from his bishopric: “We have called on apostolic administrator, Bishop Bosco Puthur, in the Archbishop's House on June 10 and asked him to vacate it on or before June 14,” said Riju Kanjookaran, spokesperson for the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (AMT).

“Some lay people also joined in burning copies of the circular in front of the Arcchbishop’s House in Kochi, in the southern India’s Kerala state, where the Church is base,” reports Ucanews. In addition, Fr. Kuriakose Mundadan, representative of the archdiocesan priests’ council, “explained that the priests will not read the circular in their parishes, because it ‘was issued fraudulently’” according to the same site.

The fundamental criticism made of this ultimatum, explains Mr. Kanjookaran to Ucanews, is “that the synod was supposed to issue a circular after its meeting [which must be held on June 14]. However, issuing such a circular five days before the synod has “questioned the credibility and ability of the synod.”

Various measures of resistance were considered, “lay leaders urged the priests not to pray for their Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, or any other bishop of the Church during the Mass from July 4,” reports Ucanews, while maintaining that they would include Pope Francis’ name, as not praying for the pope would mean a break in communion.

Finally, the same site reports that the protesting priests and faithful “want to become an ‘independent metropolitan Church,’ directly under the Vatican.” Which would indeed be a fairly radical way of resolving the conflict, but which would open the door to particularism. Nevertheless, a solution will have to be found: 450 priests and 500,000 faithful is no small thing.

The synod which is to be held in a few days is already under pressure, at least that is what an ecclesiastical official who preferred to remain anonymous told Ucanews. According to him “the circular was deliberately leaked to the media before the synod ‘to pressurize (sic) some 16 bishops’ who are against the majority bishops’ stand to impose a uniform mode of Mass in the archdiocese.”