A call to resolve Ernakulam-Angamal liturgical conflict

Kerala is known as God’s Own Country and visitors are invariably impressed by its beauty and splendour. Diversity marks all aspects of life in Kerala. Varieties of landscape and cuisine, cultures and religions, occupations and trades, thoughts and opinions make it unique.

Sep 08, 2023

A priest of the Syro-Malabar Church in India celebrates Mass facing the altar in this undated photo courtesy of the Holy Qurbana of the Syro-Malabar Church Facebook page. (UCA News photo)

By Fr Stanislaus Alla, SJ
Kerala is known as God’s Own Country and visitors are invariably impressed by its beauty and splendour. Diversity marks all aspects of life in Kerala. Varieties of landscape and cuisine, cultures and religions, occupations and trades, thoughts and opinions make it unique.

In Kerala, Christianity is both ancient and new. On this sacred land, Christianity, particularly different shades of Catholicism, survived and flourished for millennia, facing unimaginable challenges external and internal. Through the thick and thin the faithful allowed God to mould and shape them, faithfully and heroically.

Features that make the Church in Kerala outstanding include its ability to give saints and mystics as well as several thousand missionaries, not to mention thousands of nurses and teachers and others whose services are gratefully remembered.

For more than 100 years, clergy, men and women Religious and others have gone from Kerala to different parts of India, and eventually to diverse corners of the world, to enkindle or nourish people’s faith. Whether the missionaries have come from Syro-Malabar or Syro-Malankara or Latin rites, their lives have formed a magnificent mosaic.

The current issue that is at the centre of conflict in Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese — in which direction the celebrant will turn during the Eucharist — is hardly intelligible for those who have no idea of the diverse rites and their traditions in the Catholic Church, and how the faithful prize them and find ways to foster them.

Those of us who attended the Masses in both modes will know that both are rich. Certainly, we feel more connected with each other and with God when the priest faces us all the time, and, equally, when the priest turns to the altar, one certainly experiences a great sense of awe and mystery, connected with God’s immensity and otherness.

Though theologically one can make a case and say that one is preferable, arguments that make one better than the other are futile. Just because a priest turns to the faithful, our sense of communion and participation don’t increase multi-fold. Every mode has strengths and limitations.

While the faithful are free to cherish and promote one or the other, it is difficult to imagine why a faith-community has come to the point of splitting on this issue. While there is a core to the problem, many added-layers have made it extremely complex. Strong emotions, displayed by both groups, have added fuel to the fire.

While there is a genuine issue that needs to be resolved, a time has come when there is no point in arguing who was right and who was wrong and who will win and who will have to concede. Success and defeat are unhelpful and futile ways of measuring, especially in evaluating spiritual matters. Win-win options have to be explored now rather than trying to blame one or the other group entirely.

Also, it is good to acknowledge that there are no innocent participants in this episode: in one way or the other, all, Church’s leaders as well as the faithful and media, have contributed to the conflict. Finding out who did what or said what, when and where, is unhelpful.

As it is clear by now, the issue is not directly about faith or morals or doctrines. While uniformity is helpful in liturgy, in several contexts, the faithful celebrate variations, more so when they begin to be expressive.

Pope Francis gives us some clues. He upholds and promotes formalities, systems and traditions but is willing to go out of the way to meet people where they are and is ready to accommodate in this less-than-perfect-world. Synod on Synodality reminds of speaking and listening, discerning and learning, listening to and learning even from those who were wounded by the Church or have left the Church.

Saint John Paul II repeatedly said that the Third Millennium will be of the laity. Laity, laos in Greek, originally meant people.

All of us are — laity, clergy or religious — God’s People. More so now than in the past, laity begin to find their voice and long to contribute to the building of God’s Kingdom. They become aware of their dignity and equality and sanctity, of their rights and privileges and responsibilities.

Laity assuming responsible and leadership roles in the Church are comparable to the tectonic shifts and they are irreversible. While maintaining the distinctions between the clergy and laity and their vocations and roles, the Church ought to prioritise its image as People of God, an image that precedes all others.

India is going through an unprecedented crisis. There are uncertainties and fears at various levels, including threats to our Christian and national identity itself. While reviewing to find ways to resolve the liturgical-crisis, recall the faces of all those Christians (as well as others who constantly strive to uphold Constitutional values and are ready to sacrifice their lives for it) whose lives were violated, be at Kandhamal that happened fifteen years ago or what is going on now in Manipur.

Christians in India, and all over the world, expect a speedy resolution for this crisis. -- Matters India

(Jesuit Father Stanislaus Alla teaches moral theology in Delhi’s Vidyajyoti College of Theology. He is a native of Warangal in Telangana state, southern India)

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