Papal Christmas deadline over Syro-Malabar rift is met, but Indian archdiocese simmers

syro-malabar More than 4,000 faithful attended the celebration of the Christmas Mass at the St. George Parish in the suburb of Edappally, India. | Credit: Anto Akkara

While most of the approximately 350 parishes and churches in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam in India complied with Pope Francis’ demand that they celebrate a “unified” Mass by Christmas, the simmering liturgical dispute that has split the Syro-Malabar Church has come out into the open.

Protests and disruptions to Masses were observed around the archdiocese, but it remains to be seen whether there will be consequences. 

The Vatican has directed Apostolic Administrator Bishop Mar Bosco Puthur to file a compliance report on the unified Mass from each of the parishes. The vicar general of the archdiocese has also asked the priests of all 16 deaneries to collect information on which churches conducted a unified Mass on Christmas Day.

Basilica cancels Christmas Eve Mass

All eyes were turned to St. Mary’s Syro-Malabar Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, Kerala, where Christmas celebrations were canceled in 2022 when the two factions opposing and favoring the synodal Mass clashed inside the church. Once again, the basilica remained shuttered this year on Christmas Eve.

St. Mary's Basilica remained locked on Christmas Eve 2023 due to concerns about clashes over the "unified" synodal Mass. Credit: Anto Akkara
St. Mary's Basilica remained locked on Christmas Eve 2023 due to concerns about clashes over the "unified" synodal Mass. Credit: Anto Akkara

According to the rector of the basilica, Father Antony Poothavely, the decision not to celebrate Mass on Christmas was made after discussing the matter with the papal delegation.

“All of us hoped to reopen the closed basilica for this Christmas with the uniform [synodal] Mass following up the exhortation of papal delegate Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ and Apostolic Administrator Bishop Bosco Puthur. But, the situation did not assure a cordial atmosphere,” Poothavely said in a statement released to the press on Christmas Eve.

“So, the painful decision was taken to keep the basilica closed after consultation with Administrator Bishop Bosco Puthur and others,” he said. 

Background: the liturgical dispute

The dispute has divided the Church into two camps: priests from the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly who celebrate the Mass “ad populum” (facing the people) as they have since the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), and other dioceses that continue to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy “ad orientem” (facing the East/altar).  

The Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church in August 2021 mandated a uniform Mass liturgy in which the priest faces the altar after the offertory while the priests of the Ernakulam Archdiocese rejected this and have continued to celebrate Mass facing the people.

Synodal and papal exhortations for the Church to unify under one Mass led to several protests from clergy and laypeople. Then, Pope Francis on Dec. 7 issued a demand (in a video message to the “Brothers and Sisters of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly”) that all dioceses comply with a Christmas deadline for the celebration of a “unified” synodal Mass.

Some parishes see protests to ‘uniform’ Mass 

At Little Flower Parish in Perumanoor, India, the choir stopped singing during Christmas Mass when the priest turned to face the altar (according to the synodal Mass format). The priest finally continued celebrating the Mass facing the people in the style of Mass followed in the archdiocese for more than 60 years.

“The priest had been emphatically told by the people that they will not allow the synodal Mass, and that is why the choir protested,” Riju Kanjookaran of the Laity Movement of the Ernakulam Archdiocese told CNA on Dec. 27.

St. Joseph’s Parish in Thannipuzha witnessed a worse scene on the morning of Dec. 27 when the priest was stopped from saying the synodal Mass. A few of those who supported him were evicted by the police after the clash. 

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Other Masses proceed smoothly despite opposition

“Today obeying the pope, we are going to celebrate the synodal Mass,” Father Antony Madathumpady, parish priest of the sprawling St. George deanery in the suburb of Edappally, told the faithful before the mid-Christmas Mass.

Despite the majority of the 1,800 registered families in the parish opposing the synodal Mass, a two-and-half-hour-long Christmas service proceeded smoothly with more than 4,000 Catholics in attendance inside and outside the church, one of the biggest parishes of the archdiocese.

Priests celebrating the synodal Mass facing the altar. Credit: Anto Akkara
Priests celebrating the synodal Mass facing the altar. Credit: Anto Akkara

“No one wants to disobey the pope. That is why we [the priests] decided to have the synodal Mass throughout the archdiocese for Christmas as the pope has asked for,” Father Jose Vailikodath, spokesperson for the Archdiocesan Protection Council, told CNA. 

Priests turn to the pews to give the final blessing. Credit: Anto Akkara
Priests turn to the pews to give the final blessing. Credit: Anto Akkara

Despite the majority of those in the archdiocese submitting to the pope’s demand, some say divisions remain.

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“Though the priests decided to obey the pope and had synodal Mass for Christmas, the reality is that there is strong objection among the laypeople to follow the synodal Mass imposed on us. The protests reflect this reality,” Shaiju Antony, spokesperson of the Laity Movement, told CNA.

Antony challenged claims that a “unanimous” decision to launch a synodal Mass was reached in August 2021 after the online synod of 55 Syro-Malabar bishops during the pandemic. He noted that 12 bishops had objected to the proposal in a “dissenting” note to Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry.

“Any decision to be taken should focus on the unity of hearts and strengthen the communion of our Church. We believe that this is not a matter to be decided by majority or voting,” Antony said, quoting the bishops’ caution.

After the synod’s decision was announced, Antony pointed out, seven retired Syro-Malabar bishops shared their reflections on Dec. 20, 2021, with Alencherry, who stepped down as major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church on Dec. 11 of this year.

The bishops wrote: “The situation of our Church is in a very bad shape… The moral fabric of the church has been damaged… The so-called ‘unanimous’ decision of the uniform mode of celebration of holy Qurbana [Mass] was not unanimous.”

“We brought these points to the attention of Archbishop Vasil’ when we met him on Dec. 20. Hope he will brief the pope about all these,” Antony told CNA.

Father Jose Edassery, who convened meetings between a group of 12 priests with the Synod Committee of Bishops, the apostolic administrator, and the papal delegate, Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, said he hopes differences can be resolved now that the Christmas deadline has passed. 

“We are happy that ice has been broken with the synodal Mass for Christmas. The challenge now is to address the issues we have raised,” Edassery told CNA. 

“We had two rounds of discussion including eight hours in a stretch on Dec. 19 with Archbishop Vasil’ and have apprised him of our concerns,” the priest said.

“The pastoral situation in the diocese is in crisis now. The minor seminary with 76 brothers has been shut since August. Eight deacons whose ordinations should have been held these days have no idea when they will be ordained. We have no bishop. We hope the forthcoming Synod of Bishops will address all these challenging issues,” Edassery elaborated.

Deacons have been asked to swear in a signed statement that they will only say the synodal Mass as a precondition to fixing their ordination dates, Church sources said. Deacons and their parents have also reportedly refused to issue these oaths out of concerns that they would have nowhere to serve as the parishes in the archdiocese celebrate Mass facing the people.

Several other priests and laypeople said the forthcoming synod of the Syro-Malabar bishops during the second week of January will be crucial, as it has to choose a new major archbishop to fill the post held by Alencherry, appoint a bishop for the embattled Ernakulam Archdiocese, and resolve the liturgical dispute.

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