Behind Syro Malabar Church schism, a raging battle between conservatives and progressives

The row over the uniform Mass came to a head with several reports indicating that the Syro Malabar Church was on the verge of a split. It has created an evident ideological schism within the church, with many even predicting an actual split from the Syro Malabar order.
Bishops of Syro Malabar church celebrating Mass
Bishops of Syro Malabar church celebrating MassSyro Malabar Church Facebook page
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Kerala's Syro Malabar Catholic Church stands precariously at the crossroads of history. For over six years now, the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese under the Syro Malabar Church has been rocked by a series of controversies. The latest among them, which has seen a majority of the diocese’s priests organise against the Church leadership, is the battle over enforcing uniformity in Mass practices. The raging controversy has ignited speculation that the Church in Kerala is poised for another Reformation.

Headquartered in Kerala, the Syro Malabar Church is the second largest Eastern Catholic Church under the Pope in Rome. According to tradition, the church traces its roots to St Thomas, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus Christ, giving it the alias St Thomas Christians. Conflicts that are several centuries old, such as the Latinisation of the Eastern churches under the influence of the western Roman Catholic Church, form the basis of the present day strife.

The dispute is over two practices of celebrating the Holy Mass — one, called ad orientem, has the priest facing eastwards towards the altar, while the other, called versus populum, has the priest facing the people. In August 2021, the Syro Malabar Synod of Bishops decreed that the ad orientem tradition be followed uniformly across all dioceses. Several sections of the church, most prominent among them being a majority of the priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese, voiced strong opposition and advocated for versus populum. 

The dispute over the rituals even led to physical violence on multiple occasions, with the Vatican, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, getting involved in the issue.

Ahead of Christmas in December 2023, Pope Francis released a video message urging the Syro Malabar Church to adhere to the ad orientem mode of celebrating the Holy Mass. Yet, a majority within the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese clamoured for the versus populum tradition.

Before the Pope’s message, Archbishop Cyril Vasil, the pontifical delegate to the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, visited the diocese in early December. He met with priests, laity, church representatives, and bishops. Even as Vasil’s visit and meetings gave rise to a hope of resolution, on December 23, he declared that the diocese must adhere to the Mass format proposed by the Synod, aligning with the Pope's instructions. 

Those batting for versus populum had also found hope in the resignation of the traditionalist Bishop George Alencherry on December 7 and the ascent of Bishop Raphael Thattil. But on January 13, a statement emerged from the Synod of Bishops, spearheaded by the new Archbishop, that shattered these hopes. The directive was unequivocal — the format of Holy Mass must be uniform across the church, which meant that everyone was to follow the ad orientem tradition. All parishes under the Syro Malabar church were sent a circular, which was to be mandatorily read on January 21.

But the Archdiocesan Protection Committee of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archeparchy, a committee of priests and members of the diocese, informed they wouldn’t heed the circular and will continue the Mass versus populum, facing the people like they have been doing for many decades. In a bold stand that was a direct affront to Rome, 318 out of 328 churches in the diocese declined to read the circular.

The row over the liturgical practices came to a head with several reports indicating that the Syro Malabar Church was on the verge of a split. While some seemed to suggest that the dissident priests would break away from the Syro Malabar order and merge with other Catholic factions, others suggested that the priests would form an autonomous congregation under the Roman Catholic Church. Reports also predicted that continued rebellion by the priests of the diocese might even result in their excommunication.

Despite the reports of a potential split from the Syro Malabar Church, priests confirmed to TNM that they remain committed to remaining within the Roman Catholic Church and fighting for their beliefs. However, the recent internal strife within the church bears striking resemblances to historical reformations, splits, and disputes that have characterised its past.

The Syro Malabar Church

The St Thomas Christians’ affiliation to the Roman Catholic Church was formalised in 1599 at the Synod of Udayamperoor. Convened by the Latin Archbishop of Goa, the Synod organised the St Thomas Christians into the Diocese of Angamaly under a Portuguese bishop, removing its Archdeacon who was affiliated to the Church of the East. Their East Syrian liturgical practices were made to undergo a forced Latinisation, which saw staunch opposition. The disgruntlement over the influence of Latin Catholic rites eventually led to a division among the St Thomas Christians in the 17th century, notably highlighted by the Coonan Cross Oath of 1653.

Following subsequent developments, including the formation of a Jacobite group by rebel bishops, the Syro Malabar Church began to emerge more distinctly. By 1897, with the establishment of three Vicariates (territorial jurisdiction under a titular bishop) and a growing sense of a separate identity, the Church solidified its presence, particularly in Thrissur, Ernakulam, and Changanassery.

The 20th century brought further milestones, with the elevation of Ernakulam diocese to Metropolitan status in 1923 and the subsequent rise of Changanassery in 1956. As the church evolved, it gradually distanced itself from its Latin influences, emerging as a distinct entity within the broader Catholic community.

Non homogenous Catholic church

Worldwide, Catholics can be divided into Roman/Latin Catholics and Eastern Catholics such as Maronites, Chaldean, and Armenian. The Syro Malabar Church is part of Eastern Catholicism but is unique because it has historically been influenced by Latin rites. Besides Syro Malabar, Kerala also has the Latin Catholic and the Syro Malankara Catholic churches. While the former was introduced to India by Portuguese missionaries, the latter was formed in Kerala in 1930 after a section of St Thomas Christians who had left the Catholic fold in the previous centuries returned to the Roman Catholic Church.

Catholic churches in the state exhibit diversity of practices when it comes to celebrating Mass. The Latin Catholic Church typically conducts shorter Masses compared to the Syro-Malabar Mass, and adheres to the versus populum orientation.

The Syro-Malabar Catholics adhere to the East Syriac rite. In contrast, the Syro-Malankara Catholics embrace the West Syriac rite. The Syro-Malankara Mass incorporates a significant amount of Syriac language alongside the regional language.

Given this rich diversity in liturgical practices among Catholic churches, priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese raise a pertinent question: If each Catholic church adopts a distinct liturgical approach, why can't the diocese consider adopting the versus populum.

Ernakulam-Angamaly versus Changanassery 

The roots of the uniform Mass controversy run deep, dividing the Syro Malabar Church along ideological lines. At its core are two archdioceses—Changanassery, advocating for a conservative ad orientum liturgy, and Ernakulam, embracing a liberal versus populum approach—each with even bishops championing their respective causes.

The Syro Malabar Church has 35 dioceses under it across the world, with five of them – Ernakulam-Angamaly, Changanassery, Thrissur, Thalassery, and Kottayam – being archdioceses. Established successively, with Thrissur leading the way in 1887, followed by Kottayam, Ernakulam, and finally Changanassery by 1897, these dioceses formed the bedrock of Catholicism in the region. However, there has been a historical tug-of-war between the dioceses of Ernakulam-Angamaly and Changanassery, each vying for prominence within the Syro Malabar Church.

"Changanassery diocese holds sway in terms of parishes and the faithful," noted a senior priest, reflecting on the influence wielded by the diocese in Rome. "Yet, Ernakulam's strategic location as a hub of commerce and connectivity elevated its status, leading to its ascension to archdiocese status in 1923, much to the chagrin of Changanassery."

The dichotomy between progressiveness and conservatism in the two dioceses further fueled the rivalry. "Ernakulam came to symbolise progressiveness, while Changanassery remained steadfast in its conservative stance," the priest explains, underscoring the ideological divide that permeated their interactions.

In the 1960s, Changanassery's elevation to archdiocese status levelled the playing field, intensifying the conflict between the two factions.

In the ongoing conflict, the faction of diocese leadership in Ernakulam-Angamaly who bat for the East Syrian tradition of ad orientem Mass are considered as espousing the conservatism that Changanassery upholds. The controversial former archbishop George Alencherry was born in Thuruthy, a parish under the Changanassery Archdiocese, and was perceived as having brought those influences to Ernakulam.

According to priests of Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese, the conservatives have influences in the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, previously named Congregation for the Oriental Churches.

A dicastery is an administrative organ under the Roman Curia, which is the Papal bureaucracy. The Dicastery for the Eastern Churches was formed to deal with matters involving Eastern Catholic Churches for their development and protecting their rights. All patriarchs and major archbishops of the Oriental churches, and the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (another dicastery) are members of this administrative body.

According to a priest from the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese, the Oriental Dicastery was formed under the Vatican in the 1860s, as a means of dealing with the “European guilt” of colonisation. “It was formed as a result of the European guilt over how countries were conquered, colonised, looted, and converted to Christianity. The Oriental congregation was formed as a means of dealing with this regret,” he said.

“What makes Changanassery close to the Oriental Dicastery is their conservative ideology. This Dicastery strongly believes that whatever is ancient needs to be preserved, that it shouldn’t be changed. This need to preserve traditions and practices is born out of the awareness that the Dicastery itself was created out of the ‘European guilt’,” the priest added.

On the other side, Changanassery supporters blame Cardinal Joseph Parecattil for encouraging Latinisation and allowing deviations from the Eastern traditions. Parecattil was the third Archbishop (1956 to 1984) of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese and the first bishop from Kerala to be raised to cardinal stature (second senior-level rank in the Catholic Church, after the Pope).

It was during his tenure as Archbishop that the Vatican convened the second Vatican Council to discuss and decide on doctrinal conflicts, administrative rules, and other matters. Parecattil was one among the bishops and others from across the world to be part of the Council. 

Following the second Vatican Council, Parecattil actively promoted the progressive and inclusive viewpoints put forward by the Council. This included an openness towards other sections of Catholics and greater participation of the laity in the celebration of Mass. The versus populum tradition of Mass, which faces the people and is more participatory by nature, was introduced to Ernakulam-Angamaly by the Cardinal for this reason.

For the faithful of Ernakulam, Cardinal Parecattil remains a beacon of visionary leadership, symbolising the aspirations of a progressive Catholic identity.

At the same time, the second Vatican Council upheld the Eastern Churches’ rights to “preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life”. This became the takeaway of several sections of the Syro Malabar Church, especially the Changanassery Archdiocese. According to them, Cardinal Parecattil manipulated history in pursuit of a unified Catholic front in Kerala, encompassing Latin, Syro Malabar, and Syro Malankara churches. They continue to vehemently oppose this amalgamation, asserting the uniqueness of Syro Malabar traditions.

According to a Changanassery priest, Cardinal Parecattil stands accused of introducing ‘Hindu customs' into Christianity and attempting to ‘indigenise’ Kerala's Catholics. Allegations of Papal intervention to remove him only fuel the fire, with claims that Parecattil introduced the controversial versus populum practice.

"They are loyalists of Parecattil, who spearheaded controversial changes," the priest contends.

In the corridors of power, whispers abound of Changanassery's sway in Rome, with suggestions that Cardinal Alencherry was soon expecting to be raised to the Patriarchate post – a position akin to the Pope – heightened tensions. The Changanassery faction alleges a conspiracy by the Ernakulam group to stifle the Cardinal’s ascent, citing “fabricated scandals” as evidence. They were referring to the land scam case in which Cardinal Alencherry is an accused.

The land deal of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese dates back to 2016 when it sold a three-acre piece of land in Kochi to repay a Rs 60 crore bank loan. The loan was taken to buy land in Maddur in Ernakulam, to construct a medical college. The agent appointed by the church to facilitate the deal had estimated the value of the land at Rs 27.30 crore, but priests and local people claimed that the property's real value was at least Rs 80 crore. In December 2017, it was alleged by the Save Archdiocese Campaign that the church had incurred huge losses by selling land it owned at prices lower than the market value.

"The fear of a patriarchate with Changanassery allegiances prompted this orchestrated controversy," claims a Kottayam priest, shedding light on the power struggles shaping Kerala's Catholic hierarchy.

Priests of Ernakulam Angamaly diocese
Priests of Ernakulam Angamaly diocese

Ernakulam-Angamaly a bastion of progressiveness? 

The Syro Malabar Church leadership has off late shown an inclination towards the ruling BJP and its politics of polarisation. The Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese stands as the lone voice objecting to this alignment with the BJP. While several bishops openly raised allegations of the ‘love jihad’ and ‘narcotic jihad' bogeys and espoused various BJP propaganda, the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese was the lone voice of dissent.

The diocese's publication 'Sathyadeepam' fervently criticised the church's political pivot, fearlessly questioning the BJP's stance on attacks against Christians in north India, the unjust treatment of Fr Stan Swami who died in jail after being imprisoned in the Bhima Koregaon case, fuel price escalations, and the communal policies of the saffron party.

In April 2023, Sathyadeepam's editorial titled 'Vicharadhara or Vachanadhara?' (Bunch of Thoughts – RSS ideologue MS Golwalkar’s book – or gospel), admonishing the church leadership for its alliance with the BJP. This was especially after Cardinal Alencherry openly supported the party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an interview given to The New Indian Express. The editorial warned that history would not forgive the church's acquiescence to petty gains while neglecting its duty to safeguard India's secularism and democracy.

Moreover, it was Fr James Panavelil, a priest from the diocese, who coined the term 'Chrisanghi' to signify the unsettling trend of Catholics aligning with the Sangh Parivar. He also spearheaded an inclusive LGBTQIA+ themed Christmas programme at St Mary's Church, Thripunithura, a pioneering initiative unparalleled in other Kerala dioceses. Fr Panavelil's efforts reflect the diocese's inclusive and progressive ideals.

The progressive ideals espoused by the priests can also be seen in their questioning of those in power, not shying away from holding accountable the highest authority in the Syro Malabar Church. Over 400 priests of the diocese had mobilised against Cardinal Alencherry amid allegations of corruption against him in connection with the land scam.

It is the same progressive ideology that leads the diocesan priests in their demand for the versus populum mode of Mass.

Uniform Mass controversy and Ernakulam-Angamaly’s opposition

Towards the end of the 19th century, Rome granted partial autonomy to the Syro Malabar Church, allowing local priests to ascend to bishoprics, a departure from the dominance of European clergy. Prior to 1960, all churches, regardless of denomination, adhered to the practice of conducting the Mass facing east. However, the landscape shifted after 1962, following the second Vatican Council, which heralded transformative reforms within the Church.

"Before Vatican II, the laity had minimal presence in church affairs; the focus was on the bishop and his representatives. The Council's emphasis on inclusivity led to the formation of pastoral councils, granting lay representatives insight into church matters," explained a senior priest from Ernakulam.

He continued, "Mass was conducted in languages foreign to the faithful, leaving them disconnected. The advent of vernacular languages in the liturgy, coupled with the availability of the Malayalam Bible in the 1970s, empowered believers with tangible access to scripture."

In 1992, the Syro Malabar Church attained autonomy, setting the stage for internal deliberations on liturgical practices. The pivotal moment came in 1999 when the Syro Malabar Synod decreed a uniform Mass code, giving rise to lingering dissent within the Church.

The uniform procedure, introduced in 1999, aimed to standardise Mass practices, stating that priests should face the people during the Liturgy of the Word and then turn east for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It is the latter that takes up a major share of the time in a Mass. But many of the churches, including those under Ernakulam-Angamaly, Thrissur, Irinjalakuda, and other dioceses, did not follow this practice. Priests from the Thrissur and Irinjalakuda dioceses, who previously adhered to the versus populum format during holy Mass, are encountering difficulties transitioning to a uniform Mass format. Despite initial resistance, they have opted to comply with the Synod decision without further protest. Initially, they expressed their dissent to the church leadership but ultimately decided to abide by the Synod's directive.

According to the protesting priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly, the ascent to Major Archbishop status of Cardinal Alencherry in 2011 further emboldened the Changanassery faction of traditionalists.

During the COVID-19 pandemic induced lockdown, when Mass was offered online, the Vatican apparently noticed the differences in the ritual and asked the Syro Malabar dioceses to follow a uniform procedure. The priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese say that the sudden focus on the uniform Mass arose after 2020, alleging that someone from the opposing faction may have informed the Vatican so that they can divert attention from the land scam issue.

Syro Malabar bishops with Pope Francis
Syro Malabar bishops with Pope FrancisSyro Malabar Church | Facebook page

Resistance persisted, particularly within the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese, where over 400 priests and select bishops vehemently opposed the mandate. "We stand united against the imposition of uniform Mass," declared a senior priest from the diocese. "The voice we heard was not Pope Francis', it was the echo of a dictator who was misguiding the pontiff.”

The uniform Mass supporters claim that among the 35 dioceses of Syro Malabar, 34 adhere to the uniform Mass, with only the exception of Ernakulam-Angamaly. Another priest from Ernakulam-Angamaly refuted this, saying, "It is not true; many have extended support to us from all the dioceses, including bishops. They are not able to fight, so they have hope in us.”

The senior priest from Ernakulam underscored the second Vatican Council’s broader impact, noting, "Previously, salvation was believed to be exclusive to the Church, but the Council introduced a more inclusive understanding, emphasising salvation through conscience-driven living. This shift paved the way for interfaith dialogue and enriched religious studies within the clergy — a profound evolution."

In light of these developments, proponents of the versus populum stance argue for a more inclusive approach, emphasising the importance of priestly proximity and giving importance  to the congregation as a symbol of reverence and solidarity.

“We object not out of mere difficulty in adapting. Our concern lies in the regression this represents. By reverting to antiquated practices, we risk undoing the theological and administrative progress we have made. Theologically they are walking backward, with this move. The Latin Church faces the people, symbolising a theological progression,” another senior priest from the diocese said.

Another Reformation? 

In the 16th century, Western Christianity underwent a seismic split, paving the way for the rise of Protestants from among Roman Catholics. Martin Luther, a monk and German scholar, ignited the Protestant Reformation in 1517 by challenging Catholic doctrines through the Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, or 95 Theses. Luther's 95 ideas served as a catalyst for debate, fundamentally contradicting Catholic teachings and advocating for individual interpretation of faith.

At the core of Protestantism lay the belief in individual autonomy in matters of spirituality, advocating for direct engagement with the Bible for guidance and salvation, rather than relying solely on clergy and papal authority. The ensuing decades saw widespread reforms across Europe, characterised by religious turbulence, persecution, and the displacement of Protestants.

The movement within the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese is a call for reformation. It has created an evident ideological schism within the church, with many even predicting an actual split from the Syro Malabar order. The dissident priests, however, continue to emphasise their commitment to remaining within the Syro Malabar Church, affirming their allegiance to it despite calls for change.

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