Tensions are continuing to rise within the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, India, as clergy and laypeople resist efforts to impose a new liturgy on their parishes.

A circular letter was issued by Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil – the head of the Syro-Malabar Church – and archdiocesan administrator Bosco Puthur was supposed to be read at Masses last week, but 321 churches in in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese refused to do so, resulting in protests and verbal assaults.

The Syro-Malabar Church, with an estimated following of 4.25 million worldwide, is the second largest of the eastern Churches in communion with Rome. Ever since its synod decided in 2021 to adopt a new, unified mode of celebrating the Mass, the Church has been gripped by controversy, above all in its largest jurisdiction of Ernakulam-Algamany.

The synod required that Mass be celebrated facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word, and facing the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

That decree, however, was resisted by a swath of clergy and laity in Ernakulam-Angamaly, on the grounds that Mass facing the people throughout the celebration represented their local tradition and is also more in keeping with the liturgical teachings of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The circular issued by the major archbishop insisted the synod-prescribed Mass liturgy be used by July 3, or the Mass would not fulfill the Sunday obligation, and any priest using the banned version would be excommunicated.

This circular has been set on fire, thrown in water, and put into waste bins by rebel groups. They reiterate their intention to stick to the full people-facing Mass even after the deadline.

“Over 450 priests and all parish committees within the Ernakulam – Angamaly archdiocese have stated multiple times before the Synod and the Vatican that they will only offer mass where the priest faces the congregation throughout the ritual,” said Riju Kanjookaran, the spokesperson for the activist group Almaya Munnettam (Lay People to the Fore).

“But the Church leadership has never considered the stand of the diocese or intervened to find a solution and instead has always tried to impose its agenda,” he said.

Father Kuriakose Mundadan, the presbyteral Council Secretary of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, has written a letter to all the bishops in India claiming the former apostolic administrator has made a minor issue of the rubic in Mass into a major issue.

“Archbishop Andrews Thazhath misused his power as the Apostolic Administrator and has obviously misguided and misinformed Pope Francis on the liturgical issues of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly,” the priest wrote.

“His unethical acts and reports have snowballed for the worse, which significantly is a minor issue of a rubric, (versus populum and versus altare) to a serious issue of ecclesial communion. This is to say the least, utterly unchristian and against the basic gospel principles,” Mundadan continued.

He called what Thazhath did “really abominable.”

Father Jose Edassery gave a statement noting Thazhath was once the strongest proponent of the mass versus populum, “while now he has shamelessly backtracked by contending that the narrative and the theology is erroneous.”

The priest claimed “humungous lies” have been incorporated in the dismissal letter issued to the Archdiocese of Ernakulam.

“One cannot miss the cruel, irresponsible and wild allegations … in the latest circular issued by Major Archbishop Thattil and Bishop Puthoor which has pronouncedly condemned the people of the Archdiocese to be eternal victims of hierarchal apathy and highhandedness,” Edassery said.