Caught between altar and the masses: Divisions emerge in the Syro-Malabar Church over holy mass format - Hindustan Times
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Caught between altar and the masses: Divisions emerge in the Syro-Malabar Church over holy mass format

Jun 21, 2024 08:00 AM IST

Dissenters argue that the priest should be permitted to face the congregation. However, Vatican has taken a firm stand on implementing the uniform mass format

Simmering tension within the powerful Syro-Malabar Church over the unilateral implementation of a standardised format for the holy mass has divided both clergy and the faithful.

According to the fundamentals of Christianity, holy mass is a traditional ritual performed in memory of Jesus Christ's last supper, which involved breaking bread and distributing it among the disciples.(Shutterstock/Representative image) PREMIUM
According to the fundamentals of Christianity, holy mass is a traditional ritual performed in memory of Jesus Christ's last supper, which involved breaking bread and distributing it among the disciples.(Shutterstock/Representative image)

Through a circular issued this week, the church leadership warned dissenters, including priests and the laity, or the faithful not part of the clergy, of excommunication if they conducted the holy mass in any style other than the one the church synod prescribed after the set deadline of July 3.

In many areas of Kerala, where the church has powerful pockets, Archbishop Raphael Thattil's circular has sparked angry reactions including the burning of the circular.

The archbishop's authority suffered an unexpected heavy blow when fellow bishops neutral over the controversy wrote a strongly worded reply to the circular.

Bishops Mar Ephrem Nariculam, Mar Jose Chittooparambil, Mar Jose Puthenveettil, Mar Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, and Mar Sebastian Adayanthrath expressed deep concerns over the circular, which, according to them, is authoritarian.

Though the bishops assured of their commitment to synodal decisions on uniformity in holy mass celebrations, they questioned the hasty issuance of the circular without prior discussion at church forums.

They cited Pope Francis's emphasis on dialogue and unity in the church, contrasting it with what they perceive as a unilateral decision-enforcement process. "The circular reflects a mediaeval approach contrary to the spirit of the values pushed by the Second Vatican Council,” the letter said.

The bishops also expressed dismay over the potential long-term consequences of the circular, which they fear could deepen divisions and erode faith within the community.

According to the fundamentals of Christianity, holy mass is a traditional ritual performed in memory of Jesus Christ's last supper, which involved breaking bread and distributing it among the disciples.

Within dioceses across the country, the Syro-Malabar Church is India's largest denomination of Catholics. It is also rated as the most prominent among the 22 oriental churches in full communion with the Vatican.

In addition to spirituality, the church is active in educational, social, and health-related fields. It runs 4,860 educational, 262 ecclesiastical, and 2,614 health and charitable institutions nationwide.

The history of the controversy

The present controversy started in August 2021 when the church synod that decides its doctrine and manages administration issued a directive to implement a uniform code across all its dioceses and regional administrative units to streamline the performance of the holy mass.

The standardised format, which later won Pope Francis's and the Vatican's approval, was a deviation from the traditional format in which the priest faced the laity throughout the mass.

As per the new standardised format, the priest needs to face the congregation only during the first half of the mass and then he can complete the ritual by turning towards the altar.

Those who opposed the proposal say the decision is part of an organised agenda to liquidate the Oriental Church's tradition and identity and make it one of the many churches affiliated with the global Catholic Church with no differences in outlook and perception.

The biggest opposition to the proposal came from the laity affiliated with the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, one of the 35 archeparchies of the church across the country. In the Thrissur, Ernakulam, Alappuzha, and Kottayam districts of Kerala, the archeparchy has nearly five lakh Catholic adherents and 321 parish churches.

Police are camping on the premises of most parishes in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese and the standoff has the potential to become a law and order issue.

The controversial circular, which warns priests that they will be ipso facto out of Catholic communion if they conduct any mass other than the synodal form after July 3, was supposed to be read in parishes on Sunday, June 16.

However, it was not read out in most parishes in the archdiocese. In parishes like Edappally St. George Church, the faithful booed and jeered at a group that demanded unification.

At Udayamperoor church, groups entered into a heated argument, disrupting the holy mass progressing inside. Churchgoers pushed and shoved at each other over the issue, resulting in police intervention.

Meanwhile, the laity collective, Almaaya Munnettam, which coordinates the resistance to the synodal mass in the archdiocese, said parishes have completely rejected the circular. The group claims the circular was not read in any of the 321 churches in the Ernakulam archdiocese.

Interestingly, those who opposed the uniform mass are even challenging the Pope's authority, which is a first in the history of Indian churches, as traditionally, the supreme head's decisions are final.

Now, priests opposing the uniform mass have sought intervention from fellow Indian church denominations, Latin and Malankara. They also threaten to constitute an alternative church upholding unique Indian conventions if excommunication is initiated.

When the Hindustan Times contacted them, Shaiju Antony and Riju Kanjookkaran of Almaaya Munnettam said: "We will not go half an inch backward."

The dissenters argue that the priest should be permitted to face the congregation throughout the mass, as this has been the practice in the church for about 50 years.

However, the Vatican has taken a firm stand on implementing the uniform mass format across all parishes of the Syro-Malabar Church and stated that any disobedience to the papal directive would result in canonical punishment for the priests.

Pontifical Delegate Archbishop Cyril Vasil, whom the Vatican appointed to address and resolve the ongoing conflict, warns that non-compliance with the already issued direction will inevitably invite disciplinary action.

"We agree that there is a lot of disagreement about the idea of having a uniform mass in the Ernakulam-Angamali diocese. However, in other dioceses, priests and laypeople are ready to adopt the uniform system to promote unity and follow the Pope's orders. There may be protests and hunger strikes, but the majority would go by the open call of the Pope,'' said P George Joel, a laity leader who supports the synod's order.

"Since several senior bishops conducted the mass under the unified system, we have very limited options,'' he added

On the other hand, Fr. Paul Karedan, former church PRO, wants diversity to be protected. "The beauty of the church lies in its diversity. Eliminating the vibrancy will diminish the beauty of the church. We should not sacrifice unity for the sake of uniformity. Instead, we should aim to be more flexible and acceptable to the people," he said.

Priests from other parts of the country have opposed challenging the Pope's authority. They argue that the Pope keeps the Catholic Church united and that his supreme power cannot be questioned.

But those in Ernakulam-Angamaly said they have love and respect for the Pope but believe he can make mistakes. If a mistake has occurred, those responsible should have the courage to acknowledge it to the Pope and rectify it, they said.

"The dispute is simple but grave. It's over two practices of celebrating the Holy Mass — one, called ad orientem, has the priest facing eastwards towards the altar, while the other, called versus populum, has the priest facing the people. In August 2021, the Syro-Malabar Synod of Bishops decreed that the ad orientem tradition be followed uniformly across all dioceses. Several sections of the church, most prominent among them being a majority of the priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese, voiced strong opposition and advocated for versus populum,'' explained senior priest Fr Paul Thelakkatt, who is known for his independent observations on church-related matters.

"Catholic churches worldwide have diverse practices when it comes to celebrating mass. The Latin Catholic Church typically conducts shorter Masses than the Syro-Malabar Mass and follows the versus populum orientation. The Syro-Malabar Catholics adhere to the East Syriac rite, while the Syro-Malankara Catholics embrace the West Syriac rite,” Thelakkat said.

“The Syro-Malankara Mass incorporates a significant amount of Syriac language alongside the regional language. Given this rich diversity in liturgical practices among Catholic churches, priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese raise a pertinent question: If each Catholic church adopts a distinct liturgical approach, why can't the diocese consider adopting the versus populum? '' asked Thelakkatt.

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