India’s Syro-Malabar archbishop escorted by police as Vatican rules out new ‘liturgical variant’

An Indian archbishop received a police escort on Thursday as he left a meeting with clergy after the Vatican asked him to introduce a new way of celebrating the liturgy “without further ado”.

Archbishop Andrews Thazath was accompanied by police officers as he left a presbyteral council meeting in the Syro-Malabar archieparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly on September 29, according to Indian media.

He was appointed apostolic administrator of the archeparchy on July 30, after the resignation of Archbishop Antony Kariyil, who had exempted the clergy from adopting the uniform mode of celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church, known under the name of Saint Qurbana.

Uniform mode requires priests to face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word, then face east for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It was introduced in 1999 as a compromise between the supporters of the celebrated mass ad orient and those who preferred it celebrated against people.

The decision to implement a uniform liturgy was taken by the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church – the second largest of the 23 autonomous Eastern Catholic Churches after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – and approved by Pope Francis .

But the majority of the clergy in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly want to continue to face the people through the Eucharistic liturgy, a practice they have been following for 50 years.

The push for a uniform liturgy has met with fierce resistance in the archdiocese, with protesters burning effigies of cardinals, going on hunger strikes and brawling in the streets.

Priests have inundated local Church authorities and the Vatican with demands that the celebration of the Holy Qurbana facing the people be recognized as a “liturgical variant”.

Archbishop Andrews Thazath leaves a meeting of the presbyteral council on September 29 with a police escort. Facebook screenshot.

But in a letter dated September 20, Vatican Cardinal Leonardo Sandri told Bishop Thazath that dispensations could only be issued under strict conditions “with the intention of transmitting effective catechesis for the implementation of the form synod”.

“While leaving any additional pastoral practice to the prudential judgment of Your Grace, it seems necessary to immediately end the confusion over principles and make it clear beyond doubt that all bishops, priests, religious and laity are bound to conform to the synodal decision on the holy liturgy,” wrote the Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.

“A liturgical variant for the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly is therefore excluded.”

Cardinal Sandri added, “Your Grace must implement with pastoral and paternal prudence the synodal decision on the uniform regime without further delay, in accordance with the previous directives of the Apostolic See.”

Bishop Thazath, Archbishop of Trichur since 2007, formed a new priestly council for the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly on September 27. The 60 members will serve until 2027.

The Archbishop called a meeting of the presbyteral council on September 29 at the Major Archbishop’s house in Ernakulam, which he left accompanied by the police.

Some 50,000 people attended a protest on August 7 following the resignation of

Bishop Kariyil as Archbishopric Vicar of Ernakulam-Angamaly and the appointment of Bishop Thazhath as Apostolic Administrator.

Archbishop Kariyil, who was later hospitalized after suffering a “crisis episode”, published a six-page open letter in August, in which he said Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, Apostolic Nuncio to India, had told him told to resign within 24 hours.

“The nuncio advised that in the event of non-resignation, the removal process would begin immediately,” he wrote.

Bishop Girelli has not publicly commented on the open letter.