Frustrated Catholics of the Syro-Malabar rite have taken their Vatican II-endorsed rights as laypersons to new heights by setting alight effigies of their prelates. Their actions are the latest attempt to hold on to their favoured orientation of priests during the Sacred Liturgy, with some resorting to hunger-strikes in order to have their voices heard.
The Syro-Malabar rite is based in Kerala, in India and is one of the churches that sprang from the evangelisation of the apostle St Thomas. Today it includes millions of Catholics all over the world. The Church is in full communion with Rome, although burning effigies may not be the most effective way of demonstrating that.
The Syro-Malabar liturgy, like the Latin rite, had always been celebrated ad orientem – priest facing east, away from the people – but after Vatican II, some Syro-Malabar priests began to offer the Holy Qurbana, the Syro-Malabar title for the Mass, facing the people (versus populum).
In 1986, Pope John Paul II visited Kerala and attempted to reestablish the traditional orientation of the priest during the Holy Qurbana, but individual priests continued to offer the liturgy according to their own preference. This led to years of discussions until a compromise was finally reached in 1999: the Liturgy of the Word would be offered versus populum, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist was to be offered ad orientem.
The strangest fact in all of this is that priests and laity who want the Mass offered versus populum believe that this is an historic part of the Latin church – it is regarded by many as “Latinization”. In other words, they don’t realise that the “tradition” of Mass facing the people is only sixty years old!
By contrast, those who accept that at least part of the liturgy should be celebrated ad orientem see this as uniquely Oriental.
Last year, the Pope was asked to intervene, after which he wrote to the entire Church asking for the compromise solution to be implemented by Easter Sunday 2022. One wonders why the Pope is so indulgent with the Eastern Church when he is so rigid with the traditional Western Mass? Could it have something to do with the poor catechetical standards of the majority of Syro-Malabar Catholics and the relatively high standards of catechesis of traditional Catholics?
The situation flared up in March when some members of the laity set fire to effigies of the prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, and the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal George Alencherry.
Cardinal Sandri took the opportunity to push the “synodality”, the Vatican’s flavour of the month, saying: “The Apostolic See understands that some have difficulty in following the synodal decisions, but exhorts all to avoid activism and protests using non-ecclesial and non-Christian methods such as hunger strike usque ad mortem [until death].”
So take a leaf from the Kerala Catholics’ book, if you are sick of sending petitions and emails to your bishop without getting a response. Although he has most likely been playing Nero while his diocese figuratively burns, seeing his own effigy go up in smoke just might catch his attention.