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I've been reading a little about the controversy and I can't quite wrap my head around it. Are Syro-Malabar Catholics upset that the Pope says to their priests that they need to face the altar while in the USA, several Bishops are telling the priests that they need to face the people?

Is this really what's happening and why is that worth a schism?

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What is the controversy that is leading the Syro-Malabar Catholics into schism?

The major issue is in the manner in which the priest says his mass. In the Syro-Malabar Rite, the traditional manner in which the priest says mass is facing the east (ad orientem). Now however there is a movement of some priests and faithful to have the mass said facing the people (versus populum). The vast majority of the faithful still desire the mass to remain as such, however the numbers of those desiring to have their mass said as in the Latin Rite is growing fast.

The uniform mode, adopted by the Church’s synod in 2021, is a compromise between the Syro-Malabar Church’s ancient tradition, in which the priest looked east (ad orientem), and the emergence of a post-Vatican II Latin-influenced practice in some churches, where the priest faced the people throughout the liturgy (versus populum). - Mass resistance: Syro-Malabar priests defy papal delegate’s deadline

This seems like a well organized push by a small number of Catholics to change their traditional approach to having their Masses said facing the east in order to show a greater universal unity with the the Latin Rite and the pope.

The tradition of ad orientem worship is apostolic in origin. This practice is still permitted in the Ordinary Form of the Mass. This in fact was not changed or abrogated by Vatican II.

The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches actually asks theses Catholic Eastern Rites to preserve this tradition. Thus Rome still must encourage this tradition.

Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches

Prayer facing the east

"Ever since ancient times, it has been customary in the prayer of the Eastern Churches to prostrate oneself to the ground, turning toward the east; the buildings themselves were constructed such that the altar would face the east. Saint John of Damascus explains the meaning of this tradition: "It is not for simplicity nor by chance that we pray turned toward the regions of the east (...). Since God is intelligible light (1 Jn. 1:5), and in the Scripture, Christ is called the Sun of justice (Mal. 3:20) and the East (Zec. 3:8 of the LXX), it is necessary to dedicate the east to him in order to render him worship. The Scripture says: 'Then the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and he placed there the man whom he had formed' (Gen. 2:8). (...) In search of the ancient homeland and tending toward it, we worship God. Even the tent of Moses had its curtain veil and propitiatory facing the east. And the tribe of Judah, in as much as it was the most notable, encamped on the east side (cf. Nm. 2:3). In the temple of Solomon, the Lord's gate was facing the east (cf. Ez. 44:1). Finally, the Lord placed on the cross looked toward the west, and so we prostrate ourselves in his direction, facing him. When he ascended to heaven, he was raised toward the east, and thus his disciples adored him, and thus he will return, in the same way as they saw him go to heaven (cf. Acts 1:11), as the Lord himself said: 'For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be' (Mt. 24:27). Waiting for him, we prostrate ourselves toward the east. It is an unwritten tradition, deriving from the Apostles."

"This rich and fascinating interpretation also explains the reason for which the celebrant who presides in the liturgical celebration prays facing the east, just as the people who participate. It is not a question, as is often claimed, of presiding over the celebration with the back turned to the people, but rather of guiding the people in pilgrimage toward the Kingdom, invoked in prayer until the return of the Lord."

The majority of those involved are from one diocese and an emergency meeting this November 24th, 2023 has been scheduled.

It seems to me that there is local tradition within one diocese in question and it is to have the mass with priest facing the people, whereas the rest of the entire Syro-Malabar Rite priests face the east when they say mass.

It should be noted that that Rome has sent in a delegation to maintain the ad orientem form in the Syro-Malabar masss.

The top decision-making body of the Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church has formed a team of three bishops to dialogue with warring priests and the laity of an archdiocese amid threats of them breaking away from the Catholic Church over a protracted liturgical dispute.

The permanent Synod of Bishops of the Church based in southern Indian Kerala state formed a panel consisting of Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt, Archbishop Joseph Pamplany and Bishop Jose Chittooparambil at an online emergency meeting on Nov 24.

The panel was scheduled to meet the leaders of protesting priests and lay people on Nov. 25,” an official statement said.

The priests and laity in the archdiocese have formed a human blockade at the gates of the Archbishop’s House since Nov. 21 and say they will not allow the apostolic administrator, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, to enter it or any other archdiocesan institution.

The protesters had declared a boycott of Archbishop Thazhath in October after he unilaterally ordered priests to comply with an August 2021 decision of the Synod of Bishops to adopt a uniform Mass over traditional liturgical practices in the church.

The synod-approved format requires the priest to face the altar against the congregation during the Eucharistic prayer to Communion, but a majority of priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese want to continue with the traditional Mass with the celebrant facing the congregation throughout. - Split fears over liturgy row force Indian bishops to talk

Local synods can be overturned by Rome. But whether Pope Francis would do this is an open question as we know how untraditional he is in his thinking and recent decrees over the Extraordinary Form of the Mass in the Latin Rite!

This seems clearly to the exact opposite of the orientation phenomena that is afffecting the the Latin Rite.

The order follows a public statement by Vasil’ last week, in which he set an absolute deadline of Sunday Aug. 20 for priests of the archeparchy to drop protests against the uniform mode of the liturgy of Holy Qubana, ordered by the Syro-Malabar Church’s governing synod in 2021, in which clergy are to face ad orientem during part of the Eucharistic celebration.

The majority of the priests of the archeparchy have rejected the revised liturgy, which was intended as a compromise to accommodate clergy and faithful attached to the celebration of the liturgy versus populum — a modern innovation adopted in the Syro-Malabar Church following the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council for the Latin Church. Report: Four priests removed from Syro-Malabar seminary over liturgy protest

Other smaller issues are the introduction of some Latin Rite devotional practices of the Roman Rite such as the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross into this rite.

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  • Thanks, Ken Graham, for the well- resourced answer. But, I may be permitted to point out that all Syro Malabar churches had been following the Versus Populum system till recently . The change to Ad Orientem was necessitated after the decision taken in the Synod of Bishops, which has since been endorsed by the Pope. The grievance of the agitating group of priests and laymen is that a democratic consultation did not take place before the Synod would take its decision. Now that the decision has been accepted by the Pope, it is a matter of ' comply with -or - face action ' Aug 25, 2023 at 2:18
  • @KadalikattJosephSibichan I read that said but cannot confirm that in writing.
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 25, 2023 at 2:22
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    Thanks. In an interesting development, some American Latin rite priests have reportedly expressed the desire to say Mass ad Orientem, but are required to seek permission from the Bishop. Aug 25, 2023 at 4:31
  • The fact that Syro-Malabar controversy exists at the same time in history as the Latin schismatic trad movement is unbearably ironic
    – jaredad7
    Aug 25, 2023 at 16:10
  • Meanwhile, increasing number of Latin Rite Masses are said ad orientem, because that's completely fine.
    – OrangeDog
    Aug 25, 2023 at 18:05
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Before we examine the controversy, it may be worthwhile to have a brief understanding of the scenario.

Catholics of Kerala belong to either of the three Liturgical Rites namely, Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara. Those who follow Latin rite, trace their faith to the Portugese who facilitated conversion of Indians, many of whom belonged to the coastal areas. The Syro-Malabar Catholics trace their faith to St Thomas the Apostle. The Malankara rite is a fraction that rejoined Catholicism after having disowned allegiance to Rome in the 16 th Century. Now, there is no geographical area exclusively occupied by faithful of only one rite. Sometimes, you find churches of two different rites on either sides of a road! No one is prohibited from attending Mass said in a rite different from what he is accustomed to. In the Syro-Malabar Rite, Holy Mass used to be held in Syriac till 1950s. The faithfull attended the Mass with rosaries, so that they could personally recite the Rosary in silence, as the mass was going on in the 'alien' language! That attitude took a turn with the introduction of mass in the local language Malayalam. The Mass was said ad orientem. With the Second Vatican Council which brought about a huge change in the public participation in liturgy in the Latin Rite, the versus populum method of saying the mass was globally introduced. The Syro Malabar Rite followed suit. In the 1970 s there was a visible bias towards Indianisation of the liturgy which meant adoption of some prayers in the ancient language Sanskrit in the common prayers. You could even see priests squatting down while saying the Mass following the Indian tradition of meditative prayer, though on an experimental basis! But slowly, things took a back turn, and many, especially a group of the clergy, sought to gain a Unique Identity within the Universal Church by re-inventing some traditional methods of prayer. For instance, some priests determined that the Easter Vigil Mass would be said at the wee hours of the Sunday, say at 3.00 am since The Lord had risen before dawn! Some churches observed Ash Wednesday on a Monday (yes, you heard it right) to facilitate observance of 50 days of Lent. But, most of the faithful who are well-educated and well-travelled, are for maintaining status quo. There is no movement in the Latin rite churches of Kerala to restore ad orientem mass. So, you have two churches on either sides of a road - one church offering mass with the celebrant with his back to the faithful (in Syro-Malabar Rite) and the other, with the celebrant facing the faithful all through the service (in Latin Rite). Does it send a meaningful message to a Non-Christian passing by the road on a fine Sunday morning? So, if there is a controversy involving ad orientem vs versus populum methods of saying the mass, that could, and needs to be, solved through peaceful dialogue. In the modern world of social media, opinion of maximum number of the clergy as well as the faithful could be obtained within a limited period of time, and weighed on merits.

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  • The are some fundamental errors in your post. The original mass promulgated by Vatican II did not introduce the mass versus populum. This practice crept in shortly afterwards. To say that some churches observe Ash Wednesday on Monday is deceiving as that is simply their traditional way of starting Lent. This is a valid tradition in some Rites in India. To say that some reinvented the practices such as by "some priests determined that the Easter Vigil Mass would be said at the wee hours of the Sunday, say at 3.00 am since the Lord had risen before dawn" needs to be substantiated .
    – Ken Graham
    Aug 25, 2023 at 14:56
  • Thanks, Ken Graham, for giving a thorough reading of my answer and for pointing out the errors. Let me see if I can lay hands on the Easter Vigil Mass timing of some churches to prove my point. Aug 25, 2023 at 15:54

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