Sunday, May 26, 2024

Syro-Malabar lay delegation presents rebel liturgy case to Pope

Syro-Malabar lay delegation presents rebel liturgy case to Pope

A lay delegation from the Syro-Malabar Church met Pope Francis in Rome earlier this month, to present the case of opponents of the “uniform rite” of the Church’s liturgy sanctioned by the Church’s hierarchy.

The four-member delegation visited the Vatican on 6 May, a week before the Syro-Malabar primate Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil of Ernakulam-Angamaly and other members of its synod had an audience with the Pope.

“During our meeting with Holy Father on 6 May we apprised him of the truth behind our opposition to the uniform mode of Holy Qurbana or Holy Mass,” said Kurian Joseph, a retired Supreme Court justice, who led the delegation.

“Thus far, the pontiff was aware of only the perspective of the bishops. Our four-member laity delegation laid all things threadbare in front of him in a 10-page memorandum,” he told The Tablet.

Besides Justice Joseph, the delegation comprised K.P. Fabian, a former Indian ambassador to Italy, Monamma Kokkad, a former Kerala State Women’s Commission member and Lida Jacob, a retired bureaucrat.

The synod has threatened to expel the roughly 300 priests who have refused to celebrate the uniform rite. Another member of the delegation, who did not wish to be named, said these priests represented thousands of the laity in the southern Indian state of Kerala who were unwilling to give up their cultural identity.

These priests and lay groups, largely in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the Church’s primatial see, believe the entire Holy Qurbana should be celebrated versus populum, facing the congregation. In the synod’s uniform rite, the priest faces the congregation during the liturgy of the word but celebrates the liturgy of the eucharist ad orientem, facing the altar.

“The battle of ideologies has hit a stalemate with the synod, the supreme decision-making body of the sui juris or self-governing church, taking recourse to the whip of forced obedience to further its obstinate and regressive stance of non-inclusiveness,” said the delegation member.

The Syro-Malabar Church is the second largest eastern rite Churches in communion with Rome, after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, with five million members. It has 35 eparchies in India and abroad and its headquarters in Kerala, where St Thomas the Apostle began his mission in 52AD.

The liturgy dispute has lasted since August 2021, when the synod voted to enforce the uniform rite on all eparchies.

Opponents of the reform said that the versus populum liturgy reflected local tradition, in keeping with the liturgical teachings of the Second Vatican Council. The delegation member said that their opposition was not disobedience but a matter of “sheer helplessness” of the people who have followed their tradition for more than 50 years.

The dispute has resulted in occasional violent confrontations, forcing the closure of St Mary’s Basilica in Ernakulam on several occasions.

Pope Francis sent Archbishop Cyril Vasil as a delegate to the eparchy to address the situation, and also sent a video message to opponents of the liturgy urging them to accept the synod’s ruling.

However, a group of clergy and laity organised as the Archdiocesan Protection Committee of Ernakulam-Angamaly have still refused to relent.

Riju Kanjookaran, spokesman of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency, a group of lay people and priests associated with the committee, told The Tablet this had been presented as outright disobedience to the Holy See, but he said their opposition was only to the rubrics of the uniform rite, not the text of the liturgy itself.

The lay delegation told Pope Francis that the decision to mandate the uniform rite was “not a unanimous decision but an ill-informed one by the synod”. They said there were many opponents of it outside Ernakulam-Angamaly too.

Kanjookaran said the Pope had been given to understand that the synod’s decision was unanimous, but 10 bishops had opposed it.

Since 1998, the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly has recognised three options for celebrating the Holy Qurbana – ad orientem, versus populum and partly each (as in the uniform rite). When the synod issued the rubrics for the uniform rite in 1999, several eparchies had dispensations to continue with these variations.

Justice Joseph said the bishops had decided to end the dispensations in August 2021, during the Covid pandemic. The synod met online, and not all stakeholders were taken into confidence, he claimed.

Pope Francis has emphasised the need for unity and obedience in the Church, but Kanjookaran said this did not require “uniformity” in the rubrics, referring to the diversity of the Church the Kerala.

Justice Joseph said there was no question of disobedience, as the people could only be obedient to the Truth, to Christ, to the exhortations of the Second Vatican Council, and above all to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit in following Christ’s instruction to “do this in memory of me”.

Quoting the text of Pope Francis’ speech to the synod on 13 May, Kanjookaran said he had asked the bishops why they did not work for “unity as the most important thing”. Kanjookaran blamed the “obstinacy” of the bishops for “ruining” the Church and “fuelling” a fight over a non-issue.

He said it had fractured the face of the Church, driving away young people and discouraging many from participating in the Holy Qurbana.

In his address to the bishops, Pope Francis said that fighting over the Eucharist was “incompatible with the Christian faith”. He said Syro-Malabars should cultivate their sense of belonging to the Church “so that its great liturgical, theological, spiritual and cultural heritage may shine forth even more”. Division, he said, was the work of the devil.

Justice Joseph insisted that none of the parties desired division, and said he “sincerely hoped” the synod would return from Rome with “a Glasnost”, shedding its rigid and opaque stance.

Kanjookaran said that the Pope had refrained from interfering in the dispute as the Church is sui iuris, so it was now the bishops’ responsibility to act.

“If they really love the church, they will agree to the laity’s demands. From our side there will be no dilution in the demand for traditional Holy Mass, if the bishops don’t agree we will go ahead and establish a Metropolitan Church,” he said.