Syro-Malabar Catholic priests in India threatened with excommunication

Syro-Malabar Catholic priests in India threatened with excommunication Bishop Raphael Thattil

Syro-Malabar Church leaders in India are threatening to excommunicate priests who do not comply with facing the altar during Mass by July. The Syro-Malabar Church, with an estimated following of 4.25 million worldwide, is the second largest of the eastern Churches in communion with Rome. Ever since its synod decided in 2021 to adopt a new, unified mode of celebrating the Mass, the Church has been gripped by controversy, above all in its largest jurisdiction of Ernakulam-Algamany.

The synod required that Mass be celebrated facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word, and facing the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

That decree, however, was resisted by a swath of clergy and laity in Ernakulam-Angamaly, on the grounds that Mass facing the people throughout the celebration represented their local tradition and is also more in keeping with the liturgical teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The dispute occasionally has turned nasty, with angry public protests and the burning of decrees in public.

St Mary’s Cathedral in the archdiocese has been closed for the last two Christmas seasons amid the controversy. Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil and Bishop Bosco Puthur set a deadline for the Ernakulam-Angamaly clergy to comply with Eastern Rite’s Mass structure in a joint pastoral letter issued on June 9. The letter is also supposed to be read in all parishes on June 16.

The circular said Catholics that participating in a Syro-Malabar Mass not following the synod-approved structure after July 3 would not be fulfilling their Sunday obligation. “Those who fail to submit the undertaking within the stipulated time will be barred from engaging in priestly duties,” said the circular.

“Priests who do not obey our decision from July 3 will be treated as those who have left the Catholic Church fraternity. Such priests will be barred from offering Holy Mass in the Catholic Church from July 3,” the statement says.

In a meeting held after the decree was announced, around 300 priests said that they will continue to offer Mass facing the people even after July 3. Fr Kuriakose Mundadan told Crux the Major Archbishop had called an online synod on June 14 to discuss about the liturgical impasse in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

“And some of the synod members few influential bishops had already expressed their disagreement on this point of those not celebrating the unified Mass by July 3rd would be excommunicated,” the priest said.