Controversy on which direction to face during mass sharply divides Indian Church

By David Asta Alares

New Delhi, Aug 25 (EFE).- Which direction should the priest face while offering mass: the altar or the devotees? this question has sharply divided around half a million Catholics belonging to India’s Syro-Malabar Church.

Amid threats of excommunication and fierce protests – including objects being thrown towards the Slovakian archbishop sent to India as a delegate of Pope Francis – the dispute has become a tug of war between those who demand uniformity within the Church and those who call for respecting freedom of worship.

The controversy has raged for decades in the Syro-Malabar Church, among the 23 “sui-juris” eastern Churches within Catholicism, who enjoy certain autonomy in their affairs.

Specifically, it was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which decided that the priest should stop turning his back to the people and look at them during the mass, the Syro-Malabar Church spokesperson Antony Vadakkekara told EFE.

However, the current standoff began during the coronavirus pandemic.

Using the autonomy to regulate its rituals, the bishops’ synod in the Syro-Malabar Church decided in 1999 to “find a solution for both the traditions (facing the altar or the people) (…) through a 50-50 formula,” Vadakkekara explained.

This mass differs from the one observed by the Roman Catholic Church presided by the Pope, where the priest faces the people at all times, something which was reinforced by Pope Francis in 2021 in a blow to the traditionalists in favor of facing the altar at all times.

Thus, as per the 50-50 approach, a priest in the Syro-Malabar church is supposed to face the devotees during the mass, the altar during the prayer and again towards the people afterwards.

However, the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly ignored the liturgy approved by the synod and decided to continue with its tradition of conducting the entire mass facing the congregation.

Ernakulam-Angamaly is situated in the southern Indian state of Kerala and the Archdiocese is followed by half a million followers of the Syro-Malabar Church, making it the largest of the 35 dioceses.

The real problem arose two decades after later, when Churches were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and mass was broadcast online

“And then people found out there are two styles of doing it (the mass), and therefore some people wrote to the Vatican, saying we need a uniform mode of celebration,” Vadakkeara explained.

The Pope backed the uniform mass put in place by the synod, according to the spokesperson, but attempts to impose the measure have failed due to resistance by the majority of the priests, backed by the congregation.

The issue had already triggered repeated protests over the years, but the arrival of Slovak Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a direct representative of the Vatican, has aggravated issues.

Vasil was met with “very nasty slogans” and someone “even threw water bottles at him” as he was escorted by the police into the St Mary’s Cathedral Church in Ernakulam, where he issued an ultimatum to the non-obeying priests.

“On 20th of August they were expected to celebrate the uniform mode of Holy Qurbana (mass) in all the churches and mass centers,” said Vadakkekara, who hopes that the differences do not lead to a split in the Church.

Indian media reported on Wednesday that the Church had transferred four priests as punishment for not obeying the ultimatum.

Theologian and Indian priest Felix Wilfred said that the punishment is “nothing less than excommunication, which is absolutely strange to speak at this time in these terms.”

To me these are medieval ways, by which you force obedience,” he added, insisting that the actions went against the spirit of Pope Francis.

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