Irregular land deals to uniform Mass code: Conflicts in Kerala’s Syro-Malabar Church

In the latest turn of events, the Vatican has asked an Archbishop to step down as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, reportedly for siding with those who opposed Cardinal Mar George Alencherry’s call for a uniform Mass code.
Priests of Kerala Syro-Malabar church along with Cardinal Mar Alencherry
Priests of Kerala Syro-Malabar church along with Cardinal Mar Alencherry
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Of late, Kerala has witnessed an unprecedented protest — one led by nearly 200 Catholic priests. The agitation was the visible culmination of a cold war that has long existed within the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, between top priest Cardinal Mar George Alencherry and a reformist group, which has raised opposition against the former in connection with controversies over land transactions and implementing a uniform Mass code in the Church.

The latest in the series of conflicts between the two parties is the Vatican’s decision to ask Archbishop Antony Kariyil to step down as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. The Bishop was reportedly facing action for siding with those who opposed Cardinal Alencherry’s call to implement the uniform Mass code — a move that did not sit well with a section of priests, leading to the latest protests. The Vatican has now appointed Archbishop Andrews Thazhath as the apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, with the declaration regarding this being made on July 30. Cardinal Alencherry, meanwhile, has termed the appointment of Mar Andrews Thazhath as a move that “marks the beginning of resolving the problems in the diocese”. 

So how did the Cardinal, the supremo of the Syro-Malabar Church, begin to lose the trust of a section within the Church?

Controversial land deals

It was in December 2017 that the Save Archdiocese Council (SAC) first pointed fingers at Cardinal Alencherry and the then Archdiocese Procurator Fr Joshy Puthuva over financial irregularities, amid allegations that the Church had incurred huge losses by selling its land for lower prices. The SAC also alleged that the land deals were conducted without consulting with anyone holding a responsible position. 

In January 2018, the SAC formed the Save Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (SAMT) with both the laity and priests as members. The SAMT has since been standing as a corrective force within the Church, from which was carved out the Almaya Munnettam (consisting of the laity) and Save Our Sisters (consisting both priests and laity), which fought for the justice of the survivor nun in the Bishop Franco case. 

The Kerala High Court in March 2018 had ordered a police probe against the Cardinal for allegedly affecting the land deal. The court, in the order, had even asked him if the Cardinal was king. The HC then directed the police to file a case against Alencherry and three others including two priests. Given the scenario, eyebrows were raised after Alenecherry was made the president of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC), an association of the Catholic Bishops in the state, in December 2019.

Protests against a uniform Mass code

Later in August 2021, the Synod (Supreme Council) of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church decided to implement a uniform way of conducting the Holy Mass, across its churches, from November that year. The priest, as per the uniform format, would celebrate the mass facing the devotees in the introductory part, as well as during the concluding part. During most parts of the Holy Communion, however, the priest would face the altar.

To put it simply, a Mass is usually celebrated in different ways — the priest faces the faithful during the ceremony in some churches, while he faces the altar in others. The uniform code is a combination of both, and is already being followed by some of the churches in Kerala. The Almaya Munnettam, however, wants the Mass in which the priest faces the people to be retained.

A majority of the priests and the faithful who object to the decision for a uniform Mass code are from the Ernakulam-Angamaly and Thrissur archdioceses, which have not been following this practice. Ever since the Synod announced the decision, protests have been rising from these quarters, with many holding placards stating their dissatisfaction with the move. On September 5 last year, the situation escalated to a point where the protesters prevented a pastoral letter, issued by Alencherry directing all churches to follow the uniform pattern of Mass performance, from being read out in their respective churches. On the same day, a group of churchgoers protested at the Holy Family Church at Prasannapuram near Aluva in Ernakulam district, preventing Cardinal Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, from reading out the circular. 

According to the protesters, devotees and priests from up to 16 parishes under two dioceses have expressed their dissent to the new pattern. Even as around 500 priests submitted a petition to rethink the Synod’s decision, however, others have not been happy with the protest which escalated in November last year, after scores of the laity marched towards the Syro-Malabar Church headquarters to register their objection against the uniform Mass code. Just days before that, around 200 priests from Palakkad, Irinjalakuda in Thrissur, Thamarassery in Kozhikode and the Ernakulam-Angamaly dioceses had also marched to the Church headquarters to protest the unification. The standoff has since continued, and some of the protesting priests invoked Section 1538 of the Canon Law to allow continuation of the traditionally followed Holy Mass.

Later in December, yet another row erupted after the Media Commission of the Syro-Malabar Church stated that the dioceses that have declared the exemption would also be brought into the common fold, as Section 1538 of the Canon Law was temporary and regional. The gist of the statement was that all dioceses would eventually follow the uniform way of Mass performance. The Almaya Munnettam registered its objection to the same, alleging that this was just another tactic by the Church to deprive them of the exemption they earned. 

In March this year, a group of the laity protested by burning the copies of letters issued by Cardinal Alencherry and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation of the Oriental Churches, directing the archdiocese to implement the unification of Mass. Almaya Munnettam had then alleged that Cardinal Alencherry was showing an unusual rush to implement the uniform format, even as he was yet to implement the restitution of losses incurred by the archdiocese due to the land deals. The unrest has been recurring ever since, even escalating sometimes. 

The controversy took a new turn on July 25, with the Vatican authorities reportedly asking Archbishop Antony Kariyil to step down as the apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese. However, the Almaya Munnettan in a statement said that if Bishop Kariyil is accused of standing with the priests and laity of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese in the case of the uniform conduct of mass, he is being victimised for the misuse of power by the Bishops in the Church. “There are various criminal cases pending at both the High Court and Supreme Court against Alencherry. The Kerala government, however, has submitted an affidavit whitewashing the Cardinal,” said the statement issued by John Kallukkaran, Secretary of the Almaya Munnettam, and Thankachan Perayil, Convener of the Basilica Movement.

The subsequent appointment of Mar Andrews Thazhath has also been, not surprisingly, met with opposition. On Sunday, priests of the diocese refused to read a pastoral letter issued by Andrews Thazhath, with the Almaya Munnettam warning that any move against the interest of the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese would be opposed. They also met Andrews Thazhath and urged him against imposing the Synod decision on the Holy Mass.

Watch TNM interview with Riju Kanjoorkkaran on the various issues susrrounding the church

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