Kerala: Protest over unified mass throws Syro-Malabar church in turmoil

Scuffle breaks out between those opposed to unified mass and those for it in front of Edappally St George Catholic Forane Church

Edappally St George Catholic Forane Church (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Edappally St George Catholic Forane Church (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ashlin Mathew

Widespread protests have broken out at various Catholic churches under the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese in Kerala against the Syro-Malabar church's mandate to hold unified mass services starting from 3 July for all churches in accordance with orders from Pope Francis, with many devotees publicly throwing the archbishop's letter into the trash can.

A scuffle broke out between those who opposed the unified mass and those who supported it in front of the Edappally St George Catholic Forane Church, and police had to intervene to ensure that the warring factions did not end up in a fist fight. This protest has been brewing for two years.

A circular issued early this week by Metropolitan Major Archbishop Mar Raphael Thattil warned that dissenting priests would be removed from priestly duties. The circular pointed out that Pope Francis had requested twice through papal communiques and once in person via video message to implement the unified mass. Priests who do not comply with the order will be barred from priestly ministry starting 4 July.

Dissenting with the circular, believers of the Ernakulam-based Elamkulam Little Flower Church tore it up and threw it into a waste bin after Sunday's mass. Similar protests broke out at the Puthiyakavu St Francis Xavier Church in Ernakulam, Ernakulam St Mary's Syro-Malabar Cathedral Basilica and Tripunithura St Mary's Forane Church. In these churches, the circular was set on fire and they have demanded the matter be discussed again.

The communiqué had also warned that priests who do not follow the order would be barred from performing priestly duties, marriages conducted by priests facing punishment would not be recognised, and clerical students not obeying the order would not receive their priestly titles. Priests who serve outside the archdiocese or those pursuing higher studies have to provide an affidavit stating they will hold the unified mass.

The circular had also instructed that the circular be read in all churches of the archdiocese on Sunday, with the archbishop stating that the "un-ecclesiastical and unreasonable stubborn attitude" of a few priests and laity, along with negative propaganda, complicated the Eucharist dispute in the church.

Those challenging church authorities and not adhering to ecclesiastical discipline would not be allowed to continue in the Catholic communion, the circular stated.

There is a synod meeting on 19 June, and members of the church want this issue to be discussed again for a peaceful resolution of the matter. The synod is the highest decision-making body in a church.

What is the unified mass?

The dispute in the Syro-Malabar church, which is part of the Catholic church, is about how the mass is celebrated. Differences arose after the synod of bishops of the Syro-Malabar church issued an order in August 2021 that all dioceses of the church should celebrate mass in a uniform way.

The Syro-Malabar church is an eastern (oriental) Catholic church, which has 36 dioceses under it, and which is autonomous from the Latin Catholic and other Catholic churches in Kerala, but is in full communion with the Pope and the universal Catholic churches.

Church members trace the origin of their church to the apostle St Thomas, who is believed to have come to Kerala, then Malabar. It is the largest eastern Catholic church after the Ukrainian church, and the largest of the Saint Thomas Christian (Nazrani) denominations, with 5 million believers.

The way mass is celebrated in the Syro-Malabar church is different from the way it is celebrated in the Latin Catholic and other Catholic churches in Kerala.

In most of the Syro-Malabar churches of Kerala, the priest faces the congregation during the full service, but in other Catholic churches in Kerala and worldwide, the priest faces the congregation for the first half of the service and the altar for the second half.

In 2021, the synod decided that Syro-Malabar church priests should follow the rest of the Catholic churches. This decision did not sit well with most members of the church as they think it is a way of wiping out their practices and origins. Those protesting the decision state that mass has been celebrated in this way for 50 years.

Though those against the unified mass have larger support within the Syro-Malabar church in Kerala, there is a rival group which is for implementing the papal order for a unified mass. The Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese has said it will continue with the original practice of fully facing the congregation during mass.

In April 2024, several of those against the order insisted that the archdiocese be disassociated from the Syro-Malabar church synod and given recognition as a separate church directly under the Pope. A committee of priests had written to the Pope regarding the issue.

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