A Catholic archdiocese in India condemned the burning of effigies of two cardinals on Thursday by laypeople opposed to the introduction of a uniform liturgy in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

Lay activists set fire to effigies of Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Eastern Churches, and Cardinal George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, on March 17 in Kochi, southwestern India.

Photos and videos shared on social media showed flames rising from two figures dressed in white cassocks with red fascias, or sashes, the customary dress for bishops in the Syro-Malabar Church.

The incident took place in front of a renewal center in the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese.

The archdiocese’s spokesman Father Mathew Kilukkan said on March 17: “The attempt to burn the effigies of Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, and Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, the head of Syro-Malabar Church, is highly deplored.”

“Neither the Archdiocese of Ernakulam Angamaly, its leadership nor the authorities of Renewal Center was involved in this incident.”

“The archdiocese completely condemns such unchristian protests. The archdiocese is always interested in dialogue-based problem-solving.”

Effigies of Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Cardinal George Alencherry. Screenshot from i2i News YouTube channel.
Effigies of Cardinal Leonardo Sandri and Cardinal George Alencherry. Screenshot from i2i News YouTube channel.

The Syro-Malabar Church is one of the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome. Based in the Indian state of Kerala, the Church has more than four million members worldwide, making it the second-largest Eastern Catholic Church after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

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The Eucharistic liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church, known as the Holy Qurbana, has been the subject of a complex decades-long dispute. The controversy is centered on a debate about which direction the priest should face during the Holy Qurbana.

In July 2021, Pope Francis issued a letter exhorting “all the clergy, religious and lay faithful to proceed to a prompt implementation of the uniform mode of celebrating the Holy Qurbana, for the greater good and unity of your Church.”

In a separate statement on March 17, Father Kilukkan said that a meeting of the archdiocese’s clergy took place at the Renewal Centre in Kaloor, a downtown region of Kochi, on Thursday.

He said that the meeting, attended by 316 priests, “unanimously passed a resolution urging the Archbishop Mar Antony Kariyil [Archiepiscopal Vicar of Ernakulam-Angamaly] not to withdraw the existing dispensation for Mass facing the people in the archdiocese.”

“Ritual diversities already exist in different dioceses in various respects, including the position of [the] priest during the Holy Eucharist,” he said.

“The resolution therefore called for an official recognition of this liturgical variant of the Holy Eucharist by the Church. The withdrawal of the existing exemption will lead to major conflicts and pastoral crises in the parishes.”

The meeting followed the release of a Feb. 28 letter from Cardinal Sandri that called on Archbishop Kariyil to revoke a dispensation from a decision by the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church to introduce the uniform liturgy.

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The letter, addressed to Cardinal Alencherry, said: “If dispensation is requested for some special cases within the Archeparchy, Archbishop Kariyil may take decisions only with the approval of Your Beatitude.”

Sandri wrote: “Accepting that, in view of proper catechesis, a few more months may be necessary to implement the synodal decisions in some cases, this Dicastery remains committed to assisting all peaceful dialogue and pastoral preparation for the fruitful participation of the faithful in the synodal form.”

Referring to a recent hunger strike by priests opposed to the uniform liturgy, the cardinal added: “The Apostolic See understands that some have difficulty in following the synodal decisions, but exhorts all to avoid activism and protests using non-ecclesial and non-Christian methods such as hunger strike usque ad mortem [until death].”