Saturday, July 22, 2023

Protestors in India extend cathedral blockade over liturgical, financial disputes

St Mary's Syro-Malabar Cathedral Basilica, Ernakulam – Pilgrim Stays

A series of decrees and disciplinary moves culminating in the July 4 firing of a popular cathedral vicar has failed to resolve a bitter dispute within India’s Syro-Malabar Church, as a blockade of the church’s primatial basilica by protestors has continued while the vicar pursues an appeal with the Vatican.

Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the papally appointed apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the largest jurisdiction within the Syro-Malabar Church, had ordered the removal of Monsignor Antony Nariculam, the vicar of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, after Nariculam said he was unable to comply with a decree demanding immediate implementation of a uniform method of celebrating the Mass within the Syro-Malabar tradition.

The dispute has been raging since 2021, when the Church’s synod decided to adopt a uniform mode of celebrating the liturgy, in which priests are to face the people during the Liturgy of the Word and then the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, turning around again to address the congregation after communion.

Clergy and laity in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly have rejected those changes, arguing that their custom of the priest facing the people throughout the Mass is a legitimate liturgical variation and one more consistent with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

After the decision to remove Nariculam, a lay activist group called Almaya Munnettam announced what they called a “Campaign for Justice,” effectively blockading St. Mary’s Basilica to prevent another cleric from taking charge. The group is demanding that Mass be reintroduced according to the earlier custom of the priest facing the people.

On Thursday, the group extended their blockade to include Thazhath’s residence to protest the failure to make arrangements for the celebration of the Mass, and also to object to the effort to replace Nariculam while his appeal is underway.

In accordance with the requirements of canon law while an appeal is underway, Nariculam has left his residence in Ernakulam but remains on the books as the basilica’s vicar until a final ruling is reached.

The Almaya Munnettam group also insisted that the scope of their protests isn’t just the liturgical dispute, but also a series of financial decisions made by Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, which allegedly resulted in losses to the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly of roughly $10 million.

Those accusations first came to light in 2017, involving charges that Alencherry, two other clerics and a real estate agent effectively sold off archdiocesan properties at below-market prices. 

Alencherry now faces seven criminal charges over the transactions, and India’s Supreme Court in March refused to toss out those indictments, ruling instead that the 78-year-old prelate will have to stand trial.

In the wake of that scandal, the Vatican appointed Thazhath as the Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. 

A spokesman for the Almaya Munnettam group has said that the financial complaints against Alencherry “cannot be hidden” by using the liturgical dispute as a distraction.

The synod of the Syro-Malabar Church has asked the Vatican to dispatch a papal delegate to the archdiocese in an effort to resolve the difficulties.

Father Paul Thelakat, a former spokesman for the Syro-Malabar Church, told Crux the deteriorating climate in the archdiocese is a result of an overly authoritarian approach by the church’s leadership.

“All this happened just after the synod [refused] to reconsider their decision, reiterating their stand without any dialogue with the protesting group, and the synod asking for a papal delegate to study and investigate the issue from the Vatican,” Thelakat said.

“The Apostolic Administrator could not wait for the papal delegate to come and do his work. He wanted to finish the trouble before his arrival,” he said. “The church is possessed by some unfathomable frenzy which refuses any dialogue but only monologue of canonical commands.”

The Syro-Malabar Church is the second largest eastern Church in communion with Rome, after the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. 

It has a following estimated at 2.35 million in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and 4.25 million worldwide.