New leader of Syro-Malabar Church faces daunting task as dissenting priests remain defiant — By: Catholic News Agency

Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, the new archbishop of the divided Syro-Malabar Church in India, has been well received by the faithful and civic leaders alike, but there is no sign that the differences over the liturgy that have split his Church are close to being resolved. / Credit: Anto Akkara

Thrissur, India, Jan 31, 2024 / 12:45 pm (CNA).

The new archbishop of the divided Syro-Malabar Church (SMC) in India has been well received by the faithful, but there is no sign that the differences over the liturgy that have split his Church are close to being resolved.

Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil was elected on Jan. 9 as the major archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly and head of the SMC with the approval of Pope Francis.

He now has his work cut out for him as he seeks to carry out the Holy Father’s wishes that the Church there follow one, unified liturgy.

For decades, a dispute over the liturgy 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, 2023, 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.

A hearty welcome

Upon assuming his office, Thattil was welcomed with a grand reception held on Jan. 22 at Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of southern Kerala state. Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of the state, joined Cardinal Baselios mar Cleemis, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Church, along with other prelates and public figures in receiving the prelate with open arms.

Earlier, on Jan. 14, Thattil likewise received a hearty welcome at the Dolours Basilica in the heart of Thrissur with a dozen bishops joining him in a solemn Mass followed by a reception attended by Kerala government ministers as well as the faithful.  

Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil is warmly received Jan. 14, 2024, at the Dolours Basilica in the heart of Thrissur with a dozen bishops joining him in a solemn Mass followed by civic reception attended by Kerala government ministers as well as the faithful. Credit: Anto Akkara

The 67-year-old prelate’s elder brothers and sisters (he is the youngest of 10 children) took part in the solemn Mass and received Communion from him. 

Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil’s elder brothers and sisters (he is the youngest of 10 children) took part in the Jan. 14, 2024, solemn Mass and received Communion from him. Credit: Anto Akkara

In his homily, he acknowledged the SMC’s difficulties and asked for help and prayers from the faithful.

“Our Church has gone down to shocking levels with even non-Christians pitying us,” Thattil said in reference to the divisions within the Church there.

“You are most welcome to make suggestions and pray for me regularly to deal with the big challenge,” pleaded Thattil, the former auxiliary bishop of Archdiocese of Trichur who headed the SMC’s Shamshabad Diocese since 2018.

Divisions still present

However, subsequent developments in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly show that the new major archbishop has a daunting task before him. 

Priests of the archdiocese around Kochi, where clergy and laypeople have been defying the SMC synod’s call for following the synodal Mass, met on Jan. 19 and decided not to read a letter from the bishops calling for unity.

On Jan. 21, Thattil and 49 bishops who participated in a Jan. 8–13 synod signed a pastoral letter that they asked to be read in all churches of the archdiocese on Jan. 21.

“We hope that you would bear witness to the unity of the Catholic Church disregarding the differences of opinion,” the bishops urged, writing under the name of Bishop Bosco Puthur, apostolic administrator of the archdiocese.

In response, the dissenting priests released a statement to the press to say that they would not allow the letter to be read in their dioceses.

“The decision of the synod enforcing uniform Mass was in violation of the norms laid down by the Syro-Malabar Church code of law, and even the pope has been misled on it. We cannot read this circular that continues to ignore our numerous appeals that have never [received] a proper response,” the Archdiocesan Protection Committee (APC) said in a statement, which was the result of a “unanimous decision” by the priests.

The statement also took umbrage with the letter’s suggestion that “the archdiocese is going out of the Catholic communion,” pointing out that “we are following the revised SMC Mass text only in the archdiocese and the only difference is in the way of saying Mass.”

As soon as the synod ended on Jan. 13 at the SMC headquarters at Mount St. Thomas, Thattil rushed to meet two dozen key priests with a reconciliatory address: “I am ready to listen to you. I know you have a lot of wounds. No decision can be imposed. Each view will be heard and discussed.”

Members of the clergy and lay groups opposed to the uniform Mass told CNA that despite the archbishop’s words, there has been no effort to accommodate those who wish to celebrate the Mass as they have for decades.

“The pastoral letter that followed shows the duplicity. It has just repeated the old position. Without frank discussion, this issue cannot be resolved,” Father Jose Vailikodath, APC spokesperson, told CNA Jan. 20.

“To obey the pope, synodal Mass was said on Christmas Day for the first time in the archdiocese. But the issues we have repeatedly raised have not been addressed. So, how could we just follow an illegal decision taken without following the (SMC) procedure for liturgical changes?” Vailikodath asked.

The vocal group “Almaya Munnetam” (“Laity Forward”), immediately endorsed the decision of the clergy not to read the bishops’ pastoral letter in the parishes.

“It is not a question of supporting the bishops or the priests. The synodal Mass ignores the laity, who prefer the Mass facing the people,” Shaiju Antony, spokesperson for the lay network, told CNA.

Meanwhile, Thattil reiterated on Jan. 18 that “priests cannot offer holy Mass as per their will” while declaring St. Sebastian’s Church of Nedumkandam as the major archiepiscopal church of the Diocese of Idukki, the national English daily The Hindu reported.

“The priests should offer the holy Mass as prescribed by the Catholic Church and liturgy… The priests have no right to change the pattern of the holy Mass,” Thattil declared.

Thattil, for his part, said that his priority is to unite the Syro-Malabar Church.

“There is no contradiction in what I have said. I cannot speak or act against what the pope has decided,” Thattil told CNA Jan. 31 in Bangalore after the inauguration of the weeklong assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, which was attended by more than 200 bishops of India.

“I will try my best to make the Syro-Malabar Church a united one — not a mere union of 35 eparchies,” Thattil said when asked about his priorities.

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