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For the past several years, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which is based in Southern India, has been riven over a liturgical reform. In one of the nastiest and most intractable intra-Catholic disputes in the world, the church’s general synod has given orders that priests have refused to follow, priests and altar parties have had literal faceoffs over the tops of their own altars, and the Vatican has warned that, if the situation is not resolved by Christmas (now just one week away), the church’s leadership may have no choice but to consider many of its members and priests, including the bulk of one of its largest dioceses, in schism from the Catholic Church.

Much of this sounds like a “doomer” read on where the so-called liturgy wars in the West may be headed, or may have been headed at one time–before Summorum Pontificum, or between Summorum Pontificum and Traditionis Custodes, or after Traditionis Custodes; pick your poison. Some of the specifics under dispute in southern India, too, are familiar, in particular the extreme degree of importance placed on what direction the priest faces during Mass. This superficial similarity to Western liturgical disputes has been enough for some English-language commentators to choose positions and weigh in essentially on the basis of their own positions on the Western disputes. The underlying patterns and forces, however, are enormously different, in ways that most people in North America and Western Europe are neither especially interested in acknowledging nor especially well-equipped to understand.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which has a complex history and only became an autonomous particular church (like the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Maronite Catholic Church, Chaldean Catholic Church, and others) in 1923, has over the past century pursued a policy of “de-Latinization.” In other words, the Syro-Malabars have been attempting to gradually move their liturgy and other practices away from Western, Latin Rite customs and towards older ways of doing things among Christians in their part of the world. Southern India has had a Christian population since the earliest times–traditionally held to have been evangelized by the Apostle Thomas, the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts boast an enormous array of groups called St. Thomas Christians. Today some St. Thomas Christian groups are in communion with Rome, others with Canterbury or other Protestant currents, still others with Oriental Orthodoxy or other Asian Christian traditions unfamiliar to most WPI readers and contributors. The Syro-Malabar Catholics are one of two groups in communion with Rome and were under direct oversight from the Holy See and the Latin Rite for longer than the other. The program of de-Latinization has been a way for the Syro-Malabars to express, reform, and restore their ancient Christian and Catholic faith on an equal footing with the daughter-traditions of the Latin and Greek worlds.

The current dispute emerged two years ago, when the church officially reversed the custom of having the priest face the people, versus populum, during the Anaphora of Addai and Mari (the Eucharistic prayer). This adoption of what would, in a Western liturgy war, be called ad orientem, was a de-Latinization policy; however, the massive on-the-ground resistance to the change over the past two years also presents itself as de-Latinization, since the Syro-Malabar clergy and laity who oppose the ad orientem celebration of the Anaphora see the ad orientem as itself a Latinized form. In this way of looking at Syro-Malabar history, the church had an organic, voluntary adoption of the versus populum around the same time the Latin Rite did, rather than having it imposed from outside by the Latin Rite-dominated leadership of worldwide Catholicism. Once one adopts that view, current “de-Latinization” directives from Rome in fact start looking a lot like re-Latinization directives, and this is the way those resisting the new change see it.

Confused yet? So am I. Even though I understand what is being fought over and why it matters, I simply do not know enough about the Church in India to have any idea if it is the ad orientem or the versus populum celebration of the Anaphora that is the Latinized form. There are any number of points in the St. Thomas Christians’ history at which either could have emerged for the first time as an expression of the outside, European influences that the Church now seeks to undo. If I wantead to make a serious study of this question with the aim of coming to a firm, one-way-or-the-other opinion on whether or not the 2021 change “should” be resisted, I do not know who I would start by asking, but I know it would not be anybody with a strong, ideologized stance on superficially similar questions in the West.

All I can really say–all most people outside India can really say, probably including the Pope, who has biritual faculties but not in the Syro-Malabar liturgy–is that the people resisting the 2021 change should have an ironclad reason for repeatedly resisting and disobeying a decision of this kind. Do they have such an ironclad reason? They might. I don’t know. After all, I’m not Syro-Malabar.

Image: The St. Thomas Cross, symbol of the St. Thomas Christians. From Wikimedia Commons.


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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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