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Week-long Hunger strike by priests rocks the Catholic Church in India

Special correspondent from India

Former Vatican diplomat Archbishop Kuriakose Bharaikulangara of Faridabad-Delhi visiting the hunger-striking Father Babu Kalathil in Kochi hospital

Week-long Hunger strike by priests rocks the Catholic Church in India as the Pope and the Eastern Catholic Church are at loggerheads

Kochi, India: Pope Francis spares no chance in reiterating walking together and seeking together as the way of being the Church. As Francis is busy organising the global synod of bishops in 2023, regional level deliberations and preparations are in full swing across continents. Bishops from twenty-two individual Catholic churches affiliated to Rome are set to take part in the forth-coming synod to be held in Rome.

While other twenty-one churches are busy discussing and preparing for the forthcoming synod, the India-based Syro-Malabar Church, with nearly five million members, has not yet issued any guidelines nor initiated discussions on synodality in the Church. But the Syro-Malabar Church keeps all its focus on uniformity in the mode of celebrating the mass setting apart all other human and community values. The Syro-Malabar with its headquarters in Kochi, claiming lineage from St. Thomas the Apostle, is spread pan India, Europe, Australia, Canada and America

The Syro-Malabar Synod held online in August 2021 instructed all affiliated diocesan bishops to issue circulars regarding celebrating mass in the new style from 28 November 2021. There were widespread protests in six dioceses where mass was celebrated fully facing the people like one by the Pope. Faithful and priests of the dioceses like Ernakulam-Angamaly, Irinjalakkuda, Thrissur, Palakkad, Thamarassery and Manathavady clamoured for the status-quo, which was turned down by the synod. The erstwhile understanding of holding dialogue with the priests, religious and laity before making any changes in liturgy was ignored in this case. This is against the style of Pope Francis who says dialogue and listening are the core of synodality.

Archbishop Antony Kariyil of Ernakulam-Angamaly, which has over half a million members and the largest in Syro-Malabar church, met the Pope in Rome and successfully sought exception from the synodal decision on liturgical celebration to avert the tragic pastoral crisis in the Archdiocese, while all other bishops except Ernakulam-Angamaly, issued circular implementing the uniform mode of celebration of mass in the synod formula.

People and priests taking public oath not to obey the immoral decisions of the Syro-Malabar Bishop’s Synod. Such oath taking was held in nearly 200 churches under the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly

The 2022 January session of the Synod recently issued an ultimatum to Archbishop Dr. Kariyil to implement the synodal decision in a week’s time. Meanwhile, various modes of protests by the priests and laity disturbed peace in the Archdiocese, which is also the official sea of the Major Archbishop of the Church. Two priests and two laymen took up a fast-unto-death hunger strike to regularize mass facing the people, which has been the practice for more than five decades. Father Tom Mullenchira is on the fourth day of his fast while Father Babu Joseph Kalathil continues his fast on the seventh day in Lisie Hospital, Kochi. While two laymen Prakash P. John and Thomas K.O. continue their fast for the sixth day in the Kochi hospital. People from even the remote parts of the Archdiocese visit the venue despite the Covid restrictions. Movements of priests and laity are firm on their demand for mass versus populum, the progressive mode of mass adapted by the great Second Vatican Council in 1968.

Cardinal George Alencherry, aged 78, who continues to be the head of the Syro-Malabar Church and president of the Synod of bishops, was in charge of the Archdiocese for about eight years since 2011, which witnessed unlawful land deals causing huge losses to the Church. About sixteen criminal and civil cases are registered in various courts against the Cardinal. Vatican removed him from the administration of the Archdiocese following reports by KPMG commission. The Income Tax department had asked the Archdiocese to remit a fine of Rs. 7 crores ( 1 Million USD) while the high court of Kerala State-ordered Alencherry to undergo trial. Enquiry by the Enforcement Directorate is also underway. Alencherry was also grilled by the court in the nun rape case involving Bishop Franco Mulakkal of Jalandhar.

The stance of Archbishop Kariyil has stalled the attempts of Cardinal Alencherry to preside over liturgy at St. Mary’s Basilica, the cathedral of the Major Archbishop, which is under the direct control of the ruling prelate of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

Hunger strike by laity leaders at the Archdiocese of Ernakulam

Critics observe that the Syro-Malabar synod has adopted a stand contrary to that of Pope, and takes no heed to the call of the Pope for synodality, as the Syro-Malabar synod upholds uniformity at the cost of unity.

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