Every year, Christmas arrives with the promise of peace to men of goodwill. But for the unwavering Catholics in the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, goodwill has vanished. And, there is no question of peace, at least for a while as the division over the way the Mass is celebrated is growing wide each day giving rise to bitterness between a group of laity and clergy on one side and the hierarchy on the other.
The roots of what looks like a crisis now can be traced to the controversial land deals by the archdiocese between 2013 and 2018, in which it sustained financial losses.
Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, Major Archbishop and head of the Syro-Malabar Church, came under severe criticism for his alleged role in the deals. The matter has been dragged to a civil court of law even as the Cardinal’s critics have called for making good the losses suffered by the archdiocese.
The Mass issue, on the other hand, has caused an explosion of the liturgical kind. Accusations and counter-accusations, police intervention, court cases, protests spilling into the streets, boycotts, a brief closure of the St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, the principal church, a bar on protesting clergy and laity entering the archbishop’s house, and flagging threats of action from the hierarchy have marked the unfolding drama.
The present phase of the controversy over Mass celebration had its beginnings in August last year when the Synod of bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church decided to issue a diktat that all dioceses must adopt a system in which the celebrant (priest) faced the congregation (those attending the Mass) during the first part of the ceremonies up to the Credo. During the consecration and the sacramental part, the priest faces the altar and then in the last part, after the Communion, the priest again faces the participants.
Briefly called the 50:50 formula, the unified Mass has not found favour with the vast majority of laity and clergy in the archdiocese, who cite more than half-a-century of tradition of fully congregation-facing Mass.
In other words, those opposed to the synodal decision want to continue with the present practice of the celebrant facing the congregation throughout the Mass. They have continued to do so despite official efforts to bring about liturgical unity across the Syro-Malabar Church.
The Syro-Malabar Church is among more than a score of oriental churches fully in communion with Rome. It is an individual church where the decision by its Synod is final. But those opposed to the synodal Mass have called on the hierarchy and the Pope to recognise a fully congregation-facing Mass as a liturgical variant.
The Church has a membership of around five million people who are members of 35 dioceses. Thirty-four of these dioceses have implemented the Synodal Mass, said Father Antony Vadakkekara, media commission secretary of the Syro-Malabar Church.
The Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly is the exception. With a membership of around five lakh people, the archdiocese has argued its case for a fully congregation-facing mass citing the practice in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which called for more openness.
Father Vadakkekara said the path to conciliation in the archdiocese was not closed. Parishes can seek only temporary exemption from the Synodal decision. Senior priest and secretary of the council of priests of the archdiocese Father Kuriakose Mundadan said the feelings of the dominant majority of laity and clergy in the archdiocese were in favour of fully congregation facing Mass. They have been conveyed to Rome.
Father Mundadan is among those who have vociferously opposed the Synodal Mass and said that the Mass was not simply about rubrics. It is about the spiritual welfare of the people, he said and wondered why a second thought was not possible. Imposition of the will of the Synod is not the way out, he added.
The controversy over Mass celebration has had its victims too. Bishop Jacob Manathodath of Palakkad had been appointed apostolic administrator of the archdiocese following the land deal controversy. Later, when the row over Mass celebration broke out, Archbishop Antony Kariyil was appointed vicar of the major archbishop, answerable directly to Rome. Later, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath was appointed apostolic administrator. None of them has been able to implement the Synodal decision.
It was most evident on November 27, the first Sunday of 2022 advent, when Mar Thazhath was prevented from celebrating the Synodal Mass at the St. Mary’s Cathedral. The dispute almost turned into physical confrontation when the police intervened to close the church and hand it over to the civil administration. Since then, the newly appointed administrator of the cathedral basilica, Father Antony Puthavelil, has also been prevented from celebrating the Synodal Mass.
The chasm between the hierarchy and its opponents is deepening. A unfired Mass system looks a distant reality as those in favour of the fully congregation-facing Mass organised the inauguration of the centenary celebrations of the creation of the hierarchy of the Syro-Malabar Church. On December 21, 1923, it was raised to the status of an individual church. Father Mundadan claimed that the hierarchy had largely ignored the milestone.
None of the bishops, including the Cardinal, is participating in the opening of the centenary celebrations.
A member of the Samyukta Almaya Samrakshana Samithi favouring the Synodal Mass said the supporters of the Synod were disappointed that the bishops’ council had not acted firmly against the rebels. But those opposed to the Synod have called for a rethinking on its decision.
Meanwhile, the cathedral basilica and the archbishop’s house, which usually are abuzz with Christmas time activities, are quiet. Shorn of lights and decorations, there is a drab look about the cathedral, symbolising a time when there is no peace.