Protesting priests mull quitting Syro-Malabar Church

Group wants to form separate entity with its own ritual

April 09, 2022 06:53 pm | Updated 06:53 pm IST - KOCHI

A section of priests in the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, who have been protesting against the introduction of the uniform format of the Mass, have said that they may consider opting out of the church and practising its own ritual while remaining within the universal Catholic Church.

The move comes after the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry, and Metropolitan Vicar Archbishop Antony Kariyil sent out a joint circular that the unified Mass celebration will come into effect on Palm Sunday, April 10.

‘Forced to sign’

A large number of priests of the archdiocese, who met the Metropolitan Vicar on Friday, claimed that he had admitted he was forced to sign the circular endorsing the unified Mass system. The claim of Archbishop Kariyil, who has not favoured a unified Mass celebration, has virtually closed the way for a possible reconciliation on the issue. There is a large group of the laity and priests in the archdiocese who are against the unified system of celebrating the Mass.

The crux of the controversy is that the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, one of the largest units of the Syro-Malabar Church, has been following the practice of the celebrant (priest) facing the congregation throughout the Mass. However, the Synod of Bishops of the church issued a diktat in August last year that Mass celebration should be uniform as many of the dioceses celebrated it with the priest facing the congregation for the first half and then facing the tabernacle (holy of holies) for the second half.

Father Paul Thelekkat, writer and senior priest, said, “The way the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church is imposing liturgical decisions without dialogue is making the priests and faithful of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese desperate and sad that a good number of the priests are thinking of opting out of the Syro-Malabar Church and looking for new ritual option”. He said there was no question of leaving the Catholic fold.

Global examples

Quoting examples from other parts of the world, he said the Eritrean Catholic rite Church had started in 2015. The Albanian Greek Catholic Church had only 4,028 faithful. Archdiocese of Milan had its own Latin liturgical rite known as the Ambrosian rite. The Syro-Malabar rite historically came under the Chaldean ritual family. Even in the Chaldean rite, they had the option to celebrate the Mass completely facing the congregation, he said.

Father Alex Onampally, media commission secretary of the Syro-Malabar Church, said that as of now, the decision was that the Cardinal would celebrate the Mass in the unified way at St. Mary’s Basilica in Kochi on Palm Sunday. The unified system would come into effect in the entire Syro-Malabar Church dioceses on Easter Sunday, April 17.

Riju Kanjookkaran of Almaya Munnettam, a group of lay people against the unified system, said the circular sent out by the Cardinal would not be read out in the parishes during the Palm Sunday Mass.

A senior priest, who is an expert on church liturgy, termed it a big controversy on a small issue. Several options had come up to resolve the differences, but he did not divulge the details.

Mathai Varkey Muthirenthy, general convener of Samyukta Sabha Samrakshan Samithi, which is in favour of the unified system, said the Cardinal could not be prevented from celebrating the Mass on Palm Sunday in the unified system.

‘Priests, laity upset’

Father Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the Presbyteral Council, said the church authorities had earlier given time till December 25 this year to shift to the unified system but the sudden change in the stance of the authorities had upset the vast majority of the priests and laity. He said the archdiocese had a population of around five lakh faithful out of the total five million Syrian Catholics across the world. He said only a minority of the priests supported the unified system while around 450 of the 465 priests in the archdiocese were in favour of continuing with the present system.

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