ROME – American Catholics of a certain age will recall our “liturgy wars” of the 1990s and 2000s, which, among other things, culminated in a new translation of the texts used at Mass and in other sacraments.
It’s hard to remember now, but fights over concepts such as “inclusive language” and “dynamic equivalence” defined Catholic life in the English-speaking world for the better part of a decade. The amount of ink spilled debating whether we should say “and also with you” versus “and with your spirit,” by itself, could have floated several battleships.
The arguments played out in academic journals, on blogs and in the Catholic media, as well as on the floor of bishops’ conferences meetings, and, at the time, it all seemed terribly painful and polarizing.
As it turns out, however, Americans were dilettantes compared to India’s Syro-Malabar Church, where the term “liturgy wars” is anything but metaphorical.
Concentrated in southern India, the Syro-Malabar Church is the second largest of the 23 eastern Churches in communion with Rome, after the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. It counts roughly 4.25 million followers, half in the Indian state of Kerala, and is the largest of the so-called “Thomas Christian” communities which trace their roots back to St. Thomas the Apostle.
The largest single jurisdiction in the Syro-Malabar Church is the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, which houses the primatial cathedral and basilica of St. Mary’s in the city of Kochi.
For at least the last two years, a large swath of priests and people in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly have been in open revolt over a new uniform mode of celebrating the Mass, known in the Church’s tradition as the Holy Qurbana, which was adopted by the bishops who make up the Church’s governing synod.
In effect, the uniform system requires the priest to face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word, and then to face the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The idea was to resolve what had been a diversity in liturgical practice, which flew below the radar for decades until the livestreaming of Masses became common amid COVID-19 lockdowns and church members discovered they weren’t all worshiping the same way.
However, the uniform mode of the Mass, also known as the “50-50” system, was rejected in Ernakulam-Angamaly, where priests and laity, organized into highly vocal and aggressive associations, insisted that Mass facing the people throughout was not only a deeply rooted local custom, but also keeping more with the spirit of Vatican II’s liturgical reforms.
Elsewhere, that might be fodder for snarky social media exchanges and learned op-ed pieces. In Ernakulam–Angamaly, however, it has produced raucous public demonstrations, scuffles inside churches, and human chains around St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica preventing the new uniform Mass — or any Mass, for that matter — from being celebrated for months.
One measure of the rancor is when Pope Francis recently dispatched a delegate to try to settle the dispute in the person of Slovakian Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a former rector of Rome’s Oriental Institute and also a former No. 2 official in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches. He was met with angry faithful shouting abuse and even tossing water bottles at him when he attempted to enter St. Mary’s, which he was eventually able to do only under police escort.
Vasil, whose youth was spent behind the Iron Curtain as part of the former Soviet Union, is not uncomfortable with the exercise of authority, and so he set a deadline of Sunday, Aug. 20, for all priests in Ernakulam-Angamaly to adopt the new Mass — or face canonical sanctions, including excommunication.
That exercise in command and control seemed to backfire, however, when only a handful of the 328 parishes in the archeparchy — according to one count, the total was seven — actually complied. In the meantime, dissenting priests and faithful held a large public rally on Aug. 20 in which they set Vasil’s decree aflame, to cheers and chanted vows of resistance.
In the wake of that debacle, a joint commission of bishops and priests was formed to discuss the impasse and came up with a draft agreement — which would have allowed Mass facing the people to remain the norm in most parishes — with the uniform system being utilized occasionally apart from a few key venues.
That deal, however, seems to have fallen apart. Vasil reportedly rejected it for not going far enough, and the main lay association in Ernakulam-Angamaly disavowed it for going too far.
Though observers say the liturgical passions in the Syro-Malabar fracas are real, they’re not the only irons in the fire. Underlying the dispute are also tensions over leadership and management, including accusations of financial improprieties against Cardinal George Alencherry, the major archbishop who recently lost a bid in India’s Supreme Court to dismiss seven criminal charges relating to a controversial series of land deals five years ago.
What should outsiders make of all this?
First, the standoff illustrates a key challenge for Pope Francis’ ambition to make the Catholic Church more “synodal.” Here you have a Church actually governed by a synod, but one which a share of its priests and people claim is practicing anything but the “listening” and “consultation” which Francis has said should be at the heart of synodality.
Alencherry, by the way, is among the participants set to take part in the Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops in Rome, and one has to imagine there will be some interesting conversations about his own experience of synodality.
Second, history teaches that in the early Church, controversies over the creed were often a matter of life and death — they generated angry mobs, stabbings, brawls in public squares, and even fistfights among bishops. While we may be appalled at such violence over the Prince of Peace, we nonetheless also have to admire the passion theology could stir in that era, as opposed to the widespread secular indifference we encounter today.
In many ways, the Syro-Malabar Church is about as close as one’s going to come in the 21st century to such intensity, that people are literally willing to mount barricades over their liturgical and doctrinal convictions.
Obviously, one hopes the dispute will be resolved amicably … but one also hopes that in doing so, that passion won’t perish.