ROME – Although it’s always presumptuous to assert what Pope Francis must be thinking, I’m still willing to bet good money that when he sat about the “synodalization” of Catholicism, the current tempest raging in India’s Syro-Malabar Church is not exactly what he had in mind.
The irony is that the Syro-Malabar Church is already governed by a synod, but one which its critics accuse of behaving in anything but a synodal fashion.
In effect, what’s happening right now in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the largest jurisdiction within the Syro-Malabar Church and its primatial see, is the closest thing Catholicism comes these days to the spirit of the early Church, when brawls in the streets broke out over theological and liturgical differences.
In the fourth century, at the peak of the Christological controversies, St. Gregory of Nyssa captured the temper of the times in Constantinople.
“If, in this city, you ask a shopkeeper for change,” he complained, “he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you inquire about bread, the baker will answer, ‘The Father is greater, the Son is less.’ And if you ask the attendant to draw your bath, he will tell you that the Son was created ex nihilo.”
Those early Christians probably would recognize Syro-Malabar clergy and laity today as kindred spirits, because the same sort of feistiness is on display, especially in the city of Kochi – which is, in effect, the Syro-Malabar Constantinople, meaning the eye of the storm.
Should you show up right now at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mary in Kochi hoping to catch a Syro-Malabar Mass, known as the “Holy Qurbana,” you’d come away disappointed, as angry protestors are currently blocking access to the basilica and have been doing so for months.
At one level, the dispute is over liturgy. In 2021, the Syro-Malabar Synod, made up of the church’s bishops led by Cardinal George Alencherry, decided to standardize the celebration of the Mass, including liturgical posture. Basically speaking, they decided the priest should face the people during the Liturgy of the Word, the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the people again for the closing rites.
A large share of the clergy and laity in Ernakulam-Angamaly balked at those changes, insisting that they’d been celebrating facing the people for decades and saw no reason to change. Moreover, they argued, the orientation versus populum is more in keeping with the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
This dispute has not just been carried out in learned theological journals, but in the streets and even, occasionally, in angry disruptions to celebrations inside churches.
A Vatican effort to lower the temperature by appointing a special Apostolic Administrator for the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly has, in most respects, apparently backfired. When Archbishop Andrews Thazhath recently ordered the vicar at St. Mary’s deposed over his refusal to implement the uniform Mass, protesters gathered outside to burn his decree, accusing Thazhath of being “drunk with power,” and refusing to allow a different cleric to take charge.
Things became so heated that in the run-up to Christmas celebrations last year, Thazhath actually requested police protection, saying he feared for his life. After rival factions clashed inside the basilica, the Christmas midnight Mass had to be cancelled.
In addition to the liturgical arguments, there are also, perhaps inevitably, disputes over money.
Alencherry is currently facing seven criminal charges related to a series of land deals several years ago in which property of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly was sold off at significantly below-market prices, costing the archdiocese an estimated $10 million. The allegation is that Alencherry, a couple of other clerics and a real estate agent were involved in a scheme to defraud the church; the 78-year-old cardinal has admitted making mistakes, but denied any criminal wrong-doing.
On yet another front, Alencherry also has generated blowback for perceptions of being favorable to India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narenda Modi and his right-wing BJP political party. In April, Alencherry said publicly that Modi has the qualities of a “true leader” and denied that Christians feel insecure in India, statements that triggered immediate protest from a variety of Christian groups who claim a mounting climate of hostility towards religious minorities under Modi’s rule.
Critics say Alencherry has been attempting to curry favor with Modi and the BJP to insulate himself against the criminal charges he faces, noting that his public statements of support for the Prime Minister date from roughly the same time the scandals in Ernakulam-Angamaly became public in 2016.
For the most part, the Syro-Malabar Synod has backed Alencherry, just as the Indian bishops’ conference has backed Thazhath by electing him president.
Fuming clergy and laity, however, including members of an activist group called Almaya Munnettam, insist those shows of solidarity simply amount to bishops covering for other bishops, without taking into account the sentiments of the rank-and-file.
What all this suggests is that Pope Francis faces a headache in India which, if anything, is arguably even more pernicious than the one created by the controversial “synodal path” in Germany.
On the one hand, the clergy and laity of Ernakulam-Angamaly seem to be demanding precisely what the pontiff’s version of “synodality” is intended to achieve, ie, broadening the circle of voices in the conversation beyond the hierarchy, listening instead to the whole Church.
Yet at the same time, the pope has to be concerned about what people will make of the Syro-Malabar mess. If this is where “synodalization” in the pope’s sense leads, some may be tempted to ask, is it really a consummation devoutly to be wished?
It’s hard to imagine too many Catholics who would sign on to the idea of seeing their own diocesan cathedral effectively shut down for more than a year, for example, due to the inability of competing factions to reach a compromise on how to celebrate the Mass.
The Syro-Malabar Synod has asked the Vatican to dispatch a papal delegate to the archdiocese in an effort to resolve the difficulties. Whoever gets the job won’t just hold the fate of Ernakulam-Angamaly in his hands, but, to some extent, the pope’s broader synodal agenda.
Follow John L. Allen Jr. on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr