KERALA, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - India's Syro-Malabar rite priests are rebelling against Pope Francis' recent letter that imposes liturgical uniformity by approving a compromise between facing the altar and facing the congregation while offering the Holy Qurbana (Eucharist).
All 456 priests of the Syro-Malabar archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly wrote to Francis Tuesday insisting they would celebrate Mass ad populum (facing the people), breaking with the ancient Chaldean tradition of offering the Holy Qurbana ad orientem (facing East).
The revolt has intensified the ongoing liturgical crisis in the world's largest Eastern Catholic Church, which traces its roots to St. Thomas the Apostle and celebrated the Holy Mass in East Syriac until it was translated into the local Malayalam language in 1968.
Syro-Malabar dioceses follow two different rubrics in offering the Holy Qurbana. Most dioceses have priests facing ad populum, while a minority of dioceses continue to follow the ancient practice of facing ad orientem.
"Facing the people while celebrating the Holy Qurbana became trendy after Vatican II," a Syro-Malabar priest told Church Militant, lamenting the "syncretization and Latinization of the ancient Chaldean rite."
Pope Francis' is restricting the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) because he wants people to accept the Novus Ordo (New Rite) with the priest facing the people. Ironically, our Syro-Malabar modernists want to face ad populum, but he's not letting them do this.
The greatest irony is the liberals don't want to accept a compromise, even though it has been approved by a liberal pope. The division is fierce and can be resolved by returning to the authentic and ancient form of ad orientem.
But presbyterial council secretary Fr. Kuriakose Mundadan warned the bishops: "Our situation is not all ready for a 50–50 formula of celebrating the Mass. If the Synod is going to impose it, that will be the most imprudent action in the history of Syro-Malabar Church."
The clerics sent a copy of the letter to Cdl. Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, and to Abp. Leopoldo Girelli, the apostolic nuncio to India, as the Syro-Malabar Church prepares to discuss Pope Francis' letter in its synod from Aug. 16–24.
The virtual synod will decide the date for clamping down a uniform mode of celebrating the Holy Qurbana following Francis' approval of the agreement reached by the Syro-Malabar bishops in 1999.
"I strongly urge the Syro-Malabar bishops to persevere, and I confirm their ecclesial 'walking together' with God's people, trusting that 'time is greater than space' (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 222–225) and that 'unity prevails over conflict' (cf. Ibid, 226–230)," Francis wrote in July.
"I willingly take the occasion of the recognition of the new Raza Qurbana Taksa to exhort all the clergy, religious and lay faithful to proceed to a prompt implementation of the uniform mode of celebrating the Holy Qurbana for the greater good and unity of your Church," he added.
According to the 1999 agreement, now approved by Francis, the priest will face the congregation until he begins the Eucharistic prayer. The priest will then face the altar for the Eucharistic prayer until the administration of Holy Communion to the laity.
After Holy Communion, the priest will return to the ad populum position until the end of the Holy Qurbana.
The synod failed to implement the new formula on July 3, 2000, the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, as four of the 14 Syro-Malabar dioceses continued facing ad orientem while 10 dioceses opted to face ad populum.
Bishops of at least six dioceses permitted priests to reject the compromise formula after fierce opposition from clergy and laity, with the pro-ad populum Nazrani Catholic Priests Conference (NCPC) threatening a boycott by 2,000 out of 2,500 priests in the 14 dioceses.
"The bishops allowed the exemption taking into consideration the explosive situation prevailing in the church," Fr. Jose Vayalikkodath, joint secretary of the NCPC explained.
Sources in Kerala told Church Militant that the liturgical division has at least three dimensions:
First, there are those who insist on an Indian rather than Chaldean Liturgy. This is partly tied to the inculturation movement unleashed after Vatican II.
Second, there is a very strong division between the dioceses in North Kerala and South Kerala with each clinging to their own position on which way to face while offering the Holy Qurbana.
Finally, there is a strong lay opinion with two Malayalam magazines taking two different positions on the issue. So, in some cases, while the clergy are in favor of ad populum, the laity are strongly opposed. In other cases, it is the reverse.
Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church and archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, has the ear of Pope Francis and has most certainly influenced him to approve this liturgical compromise," the priest pointed out.
"No pope has made this move for 21 years since the synod agreement in 1999," he noted. "Alencherry is currently facing trial in Kerala's secular court for corruption in a land deal case, and the Vatican has been on his side refusing to take any action."
Joseph Thazhethupurackal, editor of the traditionalist Nazraen journal, maintains that the Chaldean liturgical ritual was inherited from the time of St. Thomas the Apostle, who reached Kerala 52 A.D.
"And so, we have only one liturgical identity. That is of the Chaldean rite. But the problem is the majority of bishops and priests are Latinized," Thazhethupurackal complained.
A Latin-rite priest from South India told Church Militant "the rubrics of the uniform mode of Mass, which was agreed by the synod in 1999, is being forcibly implemented now through the pope's instruction to have unity in the Mass rubrics, after 21 years."
In such a situation it is natural that there will be conflicts. It is going to cause great harm to the Church, as the faithful are used to both the rites.
The enforcement of the new mode now will give rise to a public scandal to people of other faiths and will be detrimental to evangelization. It would have been better if both forms would have been allowed to continue.
The Syro-Malabar Church has 5 million members all over the world with 64 bishops, 8,547 priests and 32,114 women religious. Outside India, the Church has jurisdiction over eparchies in Chicago, Melbourne, London and the eparchy of Missisauga in Canada.