Schism in the Syro-Malabar Church is imminent, says expert

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A substantial part of the clergy of the eparchy of Ernakulam-Angamly in India will incur a ‘latae sententiae’ excommunication if they persist in rejecting liturgical reform.

The threat of schism by part of India’s Syro-Malabar Church, where 400 priests are refusing to accept a liturgical reform, is imminent. This is the warning that Fr. Pablo Gefaell issued during a briefing in Rome on December 18, 2023. Fr. Gefaell is a professor of Eastern canon law at the University of the Holy Cross and consultant to the dicastery for the Eastern Churches.

Such a separation of such a large group of priests, which would take effect at Christmas — the deadline set by Pope Francis — is a rare occurrence in the Catholic Church. The last one dates back to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s schism in 1988

“Restore communion, remain in the Catholic Church!” Pope Francis pleaded in a video message to the faithful of the Indian Syro-Malabar Church on December 7, when the head of this Church, Cardinal George Alencherry, was forced to resign. His diocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly has become unmanageable due to a serious liturgical dispute. The situation has persisted despite the fact that Rome has sent several administrators and apostolic delegates to try to resolve the conflict in recent years.

Ancient roots of a modern problem

The long history of the Syro-Malabar Church, which is said to have been founded by the apostle St. Thomas, is linked to that of the Chaldean Church, which is present mostly in Iraq today. Like the Chaldean Church, it underwent Nestorian influences before undergoing a Latinization of its rite from 1599, in order to draw closer to Rome. 

In the 1970s, following the Second Vatican Council’s call for the Eastern Churches to return to their ancient traditions as a bridge to the Orthodox, the 35 dioceses of the Syro-Malabar Church were invited to discontinue their Latinization and return to the Chaldean rite. 

But while the more traditionalist — and therefore more Chaldean — southern province is returning to the strong tradition of its origins, the more Latinized northern province is resisting. The latter prefers to follow the Latin Church, which has instituted Mass celebrated while facing the faithful, while the south, encouraged by Vatican II, celebrates with its back to the faithful, according to the Chaldean rite.

Towards excommunications?

In 1999, the Syro-Malabar Synod — the assembly of this autonomous Church — reached agreement on a liturgical compromise. The presider would celebrate one part of the Mass facing the congregation and another with his back to the congregation. But the eparchy — equivalent to a diocese — of Ernakulam-Angamly, with its vitality and its 655,000 faithful, continues to resist. Traditionally, the head of this northern diocese is also the head of the 5.5-million-strong Church, giving even greater weight to the dissension. 

The situation worsened under the leadership of Cardinal Alencherry, elected in 2011. In addition to the liturgical quarrel, he found himself implicated in a financial affair linked to the purchase of a plot of land.

One apostolic administrator followed another. The most recent, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, appointed in 2022 by Pope Francis, was also forced to step down on December 7, to be replaced by Bishop Bosco Puthur, who has expressed his loyalty to Rome. 

This is the background to Pope Francis’ video, an unprecedented initiative in which he entreats more than 400 priests — of whom only a dozen have complied — to avoid excommunication on December 25 if the new liturgy is not applied.

So far, this warning has had little effect locally. “Some are saying that they will celebrate according to the 1999 liturgy only on December 25, because the Pope only talks about Christmas Day,” says a source familiar with the matter. Others, he says, dare not dissociate themselves from the dissidents, for fear of reprisals. 

A rejection of their Church’s authority

For Fr. Pablo Gefaell, “it’s not a liturgical problem, it’s an ecclesiological one,” mired in a power struggle. The priests of this community “have no sense of the universality of the Church,” he believes. Rejecting the authority of the Syro-Malabar Synod and the Roman Curia, they also question the authority of the pontiff. Hence Pope Francis’ warning against the risk of becoming “a sect.”

The specter of excommunication “is very real,” says the expert. In this case, it would be a nominative latae sententiae declaration — members who refuse to comply will be considered excluded from the Catholic Church by that very fact — which would be signed by the pope himself. From then on, excommunicated priests will no longer be able to celebrate the sacraments.

“Now, for the Holy See, it’s ‘Alea jacta est,‘” says Father Gefaell. He points out that the most recent comparable precedent was the schism of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the French bishop who founded the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X. Lefebvre consecrated four bishops despite Rome’s veto on June 30, 1988, provoking a rupture that remains unresolved to this day, although the four bishops’ excommunication was lifted in 2009.

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