Pope Francis has confirmed a new head of the Syro-Malabar Church, the largest Eastern Catholic church in India.
Bishop Raphael Thattil was elected major archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly by more than 50 Syro-Malabar bishops in southern India this week.
The Vatican announced Pope Francis’ confirmation of Thattil on Jan. 10 along with a letter addressed to the newly elected Syro-Malabar leader.
“May the Holy Spirit foster the unity, fidelity, and mission of the Syro-Malabar Church, so that it may grow and flourish under your paternal guidance,” Pope Francis wrote in the letter.
Thattil’s election comes amid an ongoing bitter dispute over a decision by Church leaders to institute a uniform liturgy.
The Eucharistic liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church, known as the Holy Qurbana, has been the subject of a long, complex conflict over which direction the priest should face when celebrating the liturgy. Protests against the adoption of a uniform liturgy have included a hunger strike by priests and the burning of effigies of cardinals.
Thattil, 67, will be faced with the challenge of leading a divided flock as he takes on responsibility for the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic churches in full communion with Rome.
Born in Kerala — India’s most Christian state — in 1956, Thattil was ordained a priest at the age of 24 in the archeparchy of Thrissur. He holds a doctorate in Eastern canon law from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and speaks Malayalam, English, Italian, and German.
The new Syro-Malabar leader has served as a bishop since 2010. He was auxiliary bishop of Trichur until 2017 when Pope Francis appointed him as the first bishop of the newly created eparchy of Shamshabad, which has a population of about 130,000 Catholics.
Thattil succeeds Cardinal George Alencherry, who resigned as major archbishop last month at the age of 78 after leading the Syro-Malabar Church for more than a decade.
On the day that Pope Francis accepted the cardinal’s resignation, the pope sent a video message to Syro-Malabar Catholics urging them to “restore communion” and “remain in the Catholic Church.”
Pope Francis has intervened in the dispute several times, including last year when he asked opponents of the uniform liturgy to take the “difficult and painful step” of accepting the change. In August he appointed Slovak Archbishop-Bishop Cyril Vasil’ to help resolve the ongoing disagreement.
In his letter to Thattil, signed on Jan. 9, Pope Francis invoked the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and St. Thomas the Apostle, the patron saint of India.
“I pray that, after the example of your venerable predecessors, you may strive to offer a generous and fruitful pastoral ministry to the flock now entrusted to your care,” Pope Francis said. “I likewise urge you especially to remember the poor and those most in need.”