Indian Catholics’ worship war shows few signs of resolution

A long-running “liturgy war” in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India, marked by street brawls, hunger strikes, the burning of pastoral letters, and the immolation of cardinals’ effigies, has reached a stalemate after a violent episode in December, according to the Catholic newsletter, The Pillar (January 7 and 16). Shortly before Christmas, gangs clashed inside a cathedral in southern India, dragging the altar across the sanctuary and sending sacred vessels crashing to the ground. The Syro-Malabar Church is one of several Christian communities in the southern Indian state of Kerala that traces its beginnings to St. Thomas the Apostle. This branch of Roman Catholicism is the second largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the pope, after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, with dioceses in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the U.S., along with India. Even though the Vatican gradually recognized its autonomy, the Syro-Malabar Church was divided about its Eucharistic liturgy, known as the Holy Qurbana, with various groups celebrating it differently. A movement arose seeking a single unified mode of liturgy, and after decades of debate a formula known as the “uniform mode” was endorsed by the majority of bishops and recognized by the Vatican. In the uniform mode, the priest faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and then faces the people again after Communion.

Cardinal George Alencherry (source: FSSPX.NEWS).

While most of the four-million-member church supports the uniform mode, one diocese, the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, has dissented, arguing that the Holy Qurbana only facing the people, reflecting the liturgical form established in most Catholic churches after Vatican II, should be recognized as a legitimate variant. The archeparchy, with half a million members, is the largest and the most vital of the dioceses, with significant evangelical outreach felt beyond India. Members of the archeparchy have a reputation for militancy, as seen during the “Ernakulum Priests’ Revolt” of 2017 to 2019, when clergy rose up to protest controversial land deals that allegedly lost the archeparchy $10 million and led to ongoing legal proceedings entangling the archbishop. The resulting mistrust between members of the archeparchy and the Syro-Malabar bishops was intensified when the bishops sought to implement the uniform mode, leading to street protests. An eagerly awaited meeting of the church’s bishops in mid-January ended with no breakthrough on the explosive situation. Observers worry that the dynamism of the archeparchy and its influence on the wider church is being impaired by the liturgical dispute.

(The Pillar,