Thursday, December 28, 2023

Syro-Malabar cathedral closed for Christmas amid bitter liturgical dispute

Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly

For the second year in a row, the central cathedral of the largest archdiocese in India’s Syro-Malabar church remained closed during Christmas celebrations, with both sides in a long-running liturgical controversy in the church blaming the other for the result.

The decision to shutter the basilica was announced by its administrator and rector, Father Antony Puthavelil, who said the facility will remain closed “until it becomes possible to celebrate the synod-prescribed Mass in a peaceful manner.”

Puthavelil said the decision to closed the historic cathedral had been taken by senior leadership in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Algamany, which has been divided for at least the last three years by debates over how the celebrate the Mass.

At times those tensions have turned violent, with angry public protests and even scuffles inside St. Mary’s Basilica.

Puthavelil issued a statement regarding the close under the title, “Truth will win,” saying the decision to keep the basilica closed had been painful but necessary, as there is no surety that there is an atmosphere of peace to open the church.

Apostolic administrator of the archdiocese Bishop Bosco Puthur, in a circular letter issued December 23, appealed to all stakeholders to make efforts to reopen the church so that people can offer prayers.

The tensions in Ernakulam-Algamany center on whether priests should celebrate the Mass facing the people throughout, as a large share of clergy and laity appear to desire, or facing the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, as the church’s governing synod decreed in 2021.

Father Paul Chittinappilly, one of the priests leading the resistance to the synod-imposed liturgy, told Crux that Puthavelil violated a pledge to Puthur by celebrating Mass in the cathedral Christmas night according to the synod’s instructions.

Chittinappilly said that most parishes across the large archdiocese, located in India’s southern Kerala state, had celebrated the Christmas Mass facing the people, as has been the local custom since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Ironically, Chittinappilly said, the dissident priests had been prepared to celebrate according to the synod’s instructions on Christmas day to demonstrate their loyalty to Pope Francis, who had issued a video message to the archdiocese asking them to so.

Chittinappilly also expressed confusion over the most recent efforts by Slovakian Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a former number two official of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches, who had been named by Pope Francis to mediate the conflict.

According to Chittinappilly, Vasil heard all parties to the dispute and worked out a compromise agreement, which was forwarded to the Vatican for approval. Yet shortly afterwards, according to Chittinappilly, Vasil got a phone call from Rome ordering him not to sign the agreement, with no explanation given.

“We are still in darkness as to what happened,” Chittinappilly said. “We imagine someone from here may have raised the legal objection that a papal delegate cannot tamper with the decision of the Synod and change it.”

“In short, some do not want the issue to be settled,” he said.

Authorities of the Syro-Malabar church did not respond to Crux requests for comment on this story.