A leading dissident in India’s Syro-Malabar Church has expressed satisfaction for the resignations of two senior officials, including the controversial cardinal who headed the Church, but also perplexity regarding an unusual video appeal by Pope Francis for obedience.
“We cannot make an immediate response to the video message of the pope, but we’re loyal to the pope,” said Father Joyce Kaithakottil of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, where resistance to liturgical changes prescribed by the Church’s governing synod has fueled angry public protests and a months-long shutdown at the local basilica.
“This pope always told us to listen to the other,” Kaithakottil told Crux. “Maybe, he’s not yet listened to the other side that is the position of the priests and laity.”
The twin moves regarding the Syro-Malabar Church came Wednesday, as Pope Francis accepted the resignations of 78-year-old Cardinal George Alencherry as the Major Archbishop and Archbishop Andrews Thazhath as the Apostolic Administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
Alencherry’s leadership has been mired in controversy, not only due to the ongoing liturgical dispute but also for broader matters of leadership and management, including a series of contested real estate deals for which he’s presently facing criminal charges before an Indian court.
Thazhath, meanwhile, had become a lightning rod in Ernakulam-Angamaly for his insistence on upholding the synod’s rulings on the mode of celebrating the Mass, most recently requiring candidates for priestly ordination to swear a loyalty oath vowing to “obey ecclesiastical authorities.”
One critical priest at the time called Thazhath’s imposition of the oath as a condition of ordination “obstinacy at its worst, bordering on evil-minded vengeance.”
Lest anyone interpret the resignations as capitulation to the opposition, however, Pope Francis simultaneously released a direct video appeal to members of the archdiocese, the text of which was also translated into the local language of Malayalam, calling them to “reestablish communion and remain in the Catholic Church.”
“I know that for years some people, especially priests who should be examples and true teachers of communion, have been pushing you to disobey and oppose the decisions of the Synod. Brothers and sisters, don’t follow them!” the pope said.
Addressing priests in particular, Francis called on them “to remember your ordination and the obligations you assumed.”
“Do not separate yourselves from the path of your Church, but walk with the synod, your bishops, [and] the Major Archbishop. Accept putting into practice what the synod has decided.”
Specifically, the pope called on the archdiocese to celebrate Christmas 2023 “humbly and faithfully” in the manner prescribed by Church authorities.
At the heart of the tensions in Ernakulam-Angamaly is a 2021 decision of the Syro-Malabar synod regarding the celebration of the Mass, known in the Church’s language as the Holy Qurbana. That decree stipulated that Mass is to be celebrated with the priest facing the people during the Liturgy of the Word, and facing the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The ruling marked a break with the local custom after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) of the priest facing the congregation throughout the Mass and prompted widespread resistance among both priests and laity in Ernakulam-Angamaly, by far the largest jurisdiction in the 4.25 million-strong Syro-Malabar Church.
Kaithakottil said he welcomed the departures of Alencherry and Thazhath, though he said Alencherry should not be allowed to exit the scene without addressing demands for restitution for financial losses the archdiocese reportedly suffered on his watch.
With regard to the pope’s call for compliance on liturgical questions, Kaithakottil said priests of the archdiocese have not yet met to discuss a response. However, he implied that the content of the message may not have come from the pope personally so much as Slovakian Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a former number two official in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Eastern Churches who has been serving as the pontiff’s legate amid the Syro-Malabar dispute.
“It seems that whatever the Pope Francis has spoken are the words of Archbishop Vassil as to what he conveyed to the pope, and the pope believed him,” Kaithakottil said. “He thinks it’s also a communion issue – that’s what being projected.”
Kaithakottil conceded that priests may be willing to celebrate Mass in the prescribed fashion on Christmas Day, in accord with the pope’s request, but he’s not sure if that practice can continue.
“This would have to be discussed with the priests and laity, because there are many pastoral issues and complications,” Kaithakottil said, expressing hope that the new Apostolic Administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly, 77-year-old Bishop Bosco Puthur, a native of the archdiocese who most recently head the Syro-Malabar community in Melbourne, Australia, may be open to compromise.
“Maybe through the new administrator we could be able to propose our problems, our suggestions, our pastoral situations,” Kaithakottil said.
“Pope Francis is a man of dialogue, he always says that we must dialogue, we must listen,” Kaithakottil said, adding, “We are very loyal to the pope.”