ROME – It would appear the gloves are coming off amid a long-running conflict within India’s Syro-Malabar Church, as a papal delegate on Thursday warned dissenting priests that they have until this Sunday to adopt a contested mode of celebrating the Mass or face canonical punishment, up to, and including, excommunication.
Archbishop Cyril Vasil published a letter informing priests that failure to comply will be considered “voluntary, personal, and culpable disobedience to the Holy Father.” He cited a provision of the Code of Canons for Eastern Church that speaks of punishment for defiance “not excluding major excommunication.”
(In case you’re wondering, once upon a time canonical tradition distinguished between “minor” and “major” excommunication, but the former has fallen into disuse – in part because, let’s face it, “minor excommunication” seems a bit like “minor surgery,” i.e., a contradiction in terms.)
The dispute in the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly focuses in part on liturgy, with dissenting priests and laity objecting to a uniform mode of celebrating the Mass adopted by the Church’s governing synod in 2021, which requires the priest to face the altar rather than the congregation during the Eucharistic prayers. Protests against that decision have erupted ever since, resulting in the Church’s central basilica effectively being shuttered.
In turn, the liturgical dispute is also a proxy for deeper tensions, including objections to financial administration under Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, and other matters of ecclesiastical leadership.
Now, the pope’s man on the scene effectively has said it’s time for the standoff to end, or else.
A key question however, is whether dissenting priests will take Vasil seriously, since in the closest recent parallel to what’s happening today in India, similar threats against rebel priests in a diocese in Nigeria turned out to be fairly hollow.
Although all analogies are inexact, the similarities between Ernakulam-Angamaly today and the Diocese of Ahiara in southeastern Nigeria nevertheless are striking.
In December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed a Nigerian cleric named Peter Okpaleke as the new bishop of Ahiara, prompting immediate protest from a wide swath of clergy and laity in the diocese because Okpaleke is not a member of the Mbaise ethnic and linguistic group. Dissenters claimed that the Mbaise had long been discriminated against in the Nigerian church, and insisted they had a right to a shepherd from their own community.
Okpaleke had to be consecrated as bishop outside the diocese, and in fact would never set foot in Ahiara.
Pope Francis inherited the standoff when he took over in 2013, and, much like the situation in India, he tried appointing an apostolic administrator to defuse the crisis, tapping Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Abuja for the role. Again like the Indian scenario, however, the pope’s man failed to bring the rebels to heel.
Thus it was that in June 2017, Francis took the dramatic step of giving clergy in Ahiara 30 days to accept Okpaleke as their bishop or face suspension from the priesthood. Moreover, all the priests of the archdiocese were ordered to send a personal letter to the pontiff within that 30-day period expressing contrition for their defiance and willingness to obey the pope’s directives.
Most priests reportedly sent in letters, though in many cases politely indicating why they continued to object to the appointment. Protests continued unabated, and seven months later, in February 2018, Francis accepted Okpaleke’s resignation.
Okpaleke would go on to be named the bishop of Ekwulobia in Nigeria’s Anambra state, a region dominated by Okpaleke’s own Igbo people. In what many observers regarded as a sort of consolation prize, Francis named Okpaleke a cardinal in August last year.
So far as anyone knows, no priests of Ahiara were ever suspended or excommunicated for their roles in fomenting the resistance to Okpaleke, leading many observers to conclude that, using the language of the Cuban missile crisis, Pope Francis had blinked first, and that the priests who de facto defied his orders had come away mostly unscathed.
As a result, Indian priests facing similar threats today may feel emboldened not to cave in, hoping their situation will play out in a similar fashion.
If anything, the priests in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly may feel their position is even stronger than in the Nigerian precedent. After all, their dissent isn’t rooted principally in tribal tensions, but rather in loftier matters of liturgical practice and ecclesiastical administration.
Early signs are that Vasil’s threats haven’t quite done the trick.
Father Joyce Kaithakottil, for example, is a parish priest in the archeparchy, who sent a letter to Vasil in reaction to his ultimatum posing an admittedly provocative question.
“You have told us that there is no space for dialogue, and categorically declared that you have come to implement [the synod’s decision on the Mass]. Are you going the way of Pope Francis, or in the way of Hitler?” Kaithakotti asked.
In similar fashion, Father Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the presbyteral council in Ernakulam-Angamaly, vowed to fight on.
“Our strength is in our unity to stand together for unity,” he said. “450 priests and half a million faithful will stand for Holy Mass facing the people, respecting Pope Francis but negating the fraudulent and cheating way of making a decision on liturgy by our synod.”
Whatever one makes of such declarations, they hardly sound like submission.
No matter how things unfold from here, at a minimum the Indian situation confirms a basic law of leadership, which applies in the church as well as in any other arena: Be careful about what threats you make, because, sooner or later, somebody just might force you to follow through.