Syro-Malabar Priests Petition Pope Francis to Celebrate the Eucharist Facing the People

I wrote last month about Pope Francis’ letter on the Syro-Malabar liturgy. Pope Francis wanted to foster to “a uniform mode of celebrating the Holy Qurbana, considering this an important step towards increasing stability and ecclesial communion.”

Now it is being reported in the press that all “456 priests of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly have written to Pope Francis saying they want to continue to offer Mass facing people, a practice that the Syro-Malabar eparchy has followed for the past 50 years.”

Again, please allow me to stress that I am well outside my area of expertise when dealing with liturgy in the Syro-Malabar Church.  But I believe that since their union with Rome and particularly under the Portuguese from the 1500’s many Latinizations crept into the Syro-Malabar liturgy.  Immediately after Vatican II some of the reforms that were applied to the Roman Rite were also adopted by Syro-Malabar priests. Over the last few years there has been an official encouragement from the Congregation for the Oriental Churches to readopt Eastern practices to bring the liturgy in the Eastern Churches in full communion with the Holy See more in line with the liturgy as celebrated in the Eastern Churches that are not in full communion with the Holy See.

While this is a laudable goal, it does not always meet with agreement from the Christians who worship in these Churches.  Over time the Latinizations (be they historical or simply coming from the post-Vatican II renewal of the Roman Rite) have become part of the prayer lives of these Christians and whatever the reason they simply are happy with things the way they are and have little desire to change.

A case in point is the direction the celebrant faces during the Eucharistic Prayer or Anaphora.  Apparently, some priests of the Syro-Malabar Church celebrate facing the assembly (versus populum) and others celebrate facing East (ad orientem).  The priests of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly apparently are used to celebrate facing the assembly. It is interesting that each and every one of the 456 priests agreed to sign the letter. A Synod will take place in the Syro-Malabar Church from 16-24 August and it will consider the implementation of the newly published Raza Qurbana Taksa. it seems that the priests of this Archdiocese are afraid that the Church as a whole will decide to adopt “a uniform mode of celebrating the Holy Qurbana” in which the anaphora would be prayed ad orientem.

Personally I believe that it is normally more pastorally effective to celebrate versus populum, but I realize that there are other factors at play here. But I will be watching from the sidelines and keeping the Syro-Malabar Church in my prayers hoping that they are able to balance unity with pastoral effectiveness and charity.


  1. Perhaps a temporary indult could be granted to allow a phasing out of the practice people have gotten used to?

  2. Vatican2 asked all the rites to reform themselves. Given their roots, facing the people might make sense.

  3. In UK, Syromalabar rite is frequently offered in churches “borrowed” from the Latin rite parish.
    Changing the entire altar layout for the rite can be quite the disruption.
    It’s also further confusing in churches not built on the traditional compass or indeed the traditional cruciform pattern.
    Currently ignoring the “Catholic”altar and offering mass on a travelling table in the nave of our church to conform to the orientation requirement is scarcely an improvement

  4. Vatican II’s decree on the Eastern Churches ‘Orientalium Ecclesiarum’ taught that the Eastern Churches are to shed anything not of their tradition and return to their distinct ancestral traditions. By imposing more latinizations, are the Syro-Malabar priests accepting Vatican II? Or are they rejecting this Vatican II decree, and the unity of their Church in the Catholic communion?

    Here’s another example, in the 1950s, the new eparch of the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church in the USA started an intense program of modernizations and latinizations. His words: “I’ll take the grease out of the Greek Catholic and stink out of the onion dome.” These changes were added on to the earlier and more serious latinizations from the first half of the 20th century which were imposed because of complaints to Rome by (Roman) bishops in the USA. Large scale schisms to Orthodoxy had occurred following these earlier latinizations.

    Back to our eparch, after his return from the VII council, the Ruthenian priests rebelled and he was put into self-described exile in Rome, barred from returning to his eparchy. In 1970, he was rewarded by being named as a suffragan bishop of a large Roman diocese in the US where he remained until his retirement. But another schism was avoided. As for the Ruthenian faithful, decades of latinizations became “part of the prayer lives of those Christians and whatever the reason they simply were happy with things the way they were and had little desire to change.” In the 1990s, when this Church finally got around to returning to their patrimony (i.e. accepting and obeying Vatican II), the people didn’t like it, because of…the argument quoted above. But reform pressed on. For the sake of unity will the Syro-Malabars accept “a uniform mode of celebrating the Holy Qurbana” and return to their legitimate patrimony as set forth by the reforms of Vatican II? And what will the pope of Rome do?

    1. And perhaps, just as in the West, they will discover that facing the wall is not in their oldest traditions?

      1. i worship (not towards a wall, thanks) in the greek orthodox rite and the ecumenism that we should conform to our late 20th and 21st century roman catholic betters’ idea of worship doesn’t make me feel welcomed or good.

  5. Perhaps the issue here is, ought we consider the celebrant facing the assembly to be a “Latinization” or is it a more fundamental liturgical practice that is deeper than any particular rite and thus making sense for all of them?

    1. Regarding whether facing the assembly is more fundamental, Jungmann and others that the earliest Christian churches were arranged so that the presider facing the assembly was the norm. The prevailing view seems to be that the ministers were ranged along the wall of the apse and simply moved forward to the altar, not round to the other side of it to face the East.

      It seems clear that the Mass’s origin in a meal with participants gathered around a table would strongly suggest that this configuration was considered quite normal in the earliest times. It is difficult to envisage an early House Mass with the presider facing away from everyone else. One would imagine that the rise of a more clericalist style of liturgy, coupled with an eschatolological focus, was in part responsible for the change in orientation.

      1. It is difficult to envisage an early House Mass with the presider facing away from everyone else.

        I think the difficulty depends heavily on what you are picturing, and whether you think of it as “facing away from everyone else” or “facing the same direction as everyone else.” I find the second to be very natural: for example, at Knights of Columbus meetings, we all face the flag for the Pledge of Allegiance, all face the crucifix for the prayers, and so on.

      2. It cannot be repeated too many times: When all are gathered around an altar, on all sides of it, all are facing the same thing: the altar which is the symbol of Christ.

      3. greek church face east to pray, literally the churches are built for this. its been that way for all written memory. one can make a supposed reconstruction of what one thinks was done in the first or second century, but then it would no longer be the greek rite.

        scholars say many things but it is all assumptions since we lack time machines to see, and the science version of scholars are surprised by the truth or get proven wrong all the time. for example apostolic tradition was considered to be a written document by Hippolytus of Rome himself – now it is considered by scholars to be a collection of documents from a later period in Alexandria in Egypt.

        maybe these Christians from India should instead embrace the Roman Rite.

      4. St. Clement of Alexandria noted Christians prayed Eastward in the 2nd Century. There is a segment of scholars that seems to think that somewhere in the 2nd to 3rd century there was a big leap/development/distortion between what Jesus and the Apostles believed and what later generations practiced.

        Some of these assumption are not demonstrably untrue. The Trinity, for example, was thought to have “developed” out reflections on the Gospel accounts, but even modern Jewish scholars recognize that 2nd Temple Judaism had a strong current of binitarianism even before the Pharisee Saul/Paul was born. Perhaps they were even Trinitarian.

        Yes Christian worship was a meal, but all sacrifices were meals where one offered food to the deity either the true God of Israel or the gods of the nations (the fallen angels) who returned it to the one who offered the gift as a way of achieving communion with the deity. This ritualized meal took place in an era when sacred geography was very important. North was the abode of darkness and demons. East was the direction of paradise and the eschaton.

      5. It cannot be repeated too many times: When all are gathered around an altar, on all sides of it, all are facing the same thing: the altar which is the symbol of Christ.

        The same, of course, is true of ad orientem; the priest does not have his back to the people, rather they are all together facing the same thing: the altar which is the symbol of Christ. We should avoid the deliberate pejorative terms “with his back to the people” or “facing away from everyone else.”

      6. “Jungmann and others …”

        Jungmann later changed his mind about the historical practice, and Louis Bouyer as well.

  6. Please correct me if I’m wrong. But, isn’t the earliest existent Christian Church that we know of in Dura Europos (3rd Century) and isn’t the altar against the eastern wall? If this is a typical example of the earliest Christian churches, how can we say what the earlier more authentic practice is? Especially considering the practice of eating on the same side of a convex table as the norm in ancient meals and the Jewish practice of facing the temple when at prayer? I’m not sure if Jungmann got the ancient meal right.

    1. Especially considering the practice of eating on the same side of a convex table as the norm in ancient meals

      Anyone who has ever been to a seder meal will know that this is not necessarily true. A typical layout would be like an elongated capital E without the central bar. Yes, the custom in some places is that those who eat sit on one side while the other side is reserved for those who serve, but in many other places people will sit on both sides of the long arms of the table.

      It all reminds me of the old joke: What did Jesus say to his disciples at the Last Supper? “If you don’t get round this side of the table, you won’t be in the picture!”

    2. Regarding Dura Europos, no altar was found there, and archaeologists are unsure where it would have been located, so it is not correct to say it was against the east wall. This is easily explained if the “altar” was in fact a wooden table in the middle of a room.

      1. From page 17, speaking of the assembly room and against the wall “With the raised platform on the eastern edge, this was likely the main gathering space for teaching, prayer, and the Eucharist (or Lord’s Supper).”

        Peppard, M. (2016). In The world’s oldest church: Bible, art, and ritual At Dura-Europos, Syria. essay, Yale University Press.

      2. Yes, there was a dais, but its location right next to a doorway makes it highly unlikely to have been the location of an altar, despite speculation on the part of some scholars. There is no physical evidence of an altar in the entire complex.

        It’s tempting to interpret spaces through the lens of later developments. A look at the varied history of the use of the Sistine Chapel in much more recent times shows that both its use and its configuration varied considerably in a comparatively short period. One can not determine one single use or configuration merely from an image dating from a particular point in time. How much more difficult, then, to determine how a 2,000-year-old room might have been used, particularly after the modifications it underwent.


        the door you mention is not the entrance. the entrance to the room is on the north wall, not the east.

        furthermore fragments in the house church are of the didache, the church was suddenly buried by the neighboring city wall during seige, which caused its preservation. the fact that a didache is laying around in there meant it was in recent use prior to the buildings burial.

        there is an image of the what it looked like. the door goes to a little room. in my church there is too a little door next to the altar that goes to the sacristy. the platform could of been a podium, it could of been an altar, it could of been a shrine, but its there for a reason and its on the east side.

        praying to the east as mr. rice demonstrates since the time of st. clement of alexandria.. who was born in the 150s, and the dura europas church is from the 250s… but the words of clement of alexandria cant stand under the scrutiny of modern scholarship i guess.

      4. I did not say it was an entrance. merely a doorway.

        The image is of course very well known, but the actual use of all the spaces is entirely conjectural, except for the baptistery. It is entirely possible, for example, that the normal place for the liturgical assembly was in fact the space designated as the courtyard.

        There is no getting away from the fact that no trace of an altar was found on the dais (or anywhere else in the whole complex), however much one might wish that it had been.

        The whole point of scholarly rigour is not to make assumptions and then try to find justifications for them, but to look at the evidence dispassionately and then analyze accordingly.

      5. “ The whole point of scholarly rigour is not to make assumptions and then try to find justifications for them, but to look at the evidence dispassionately and then analyze accordingly.”

        Well, a raised platform in a large room is a natural focal point when the room is full of people. It’s indicative of the place of the liturgical action. I agree that scholars should check their assumptions and dispassionately look at the evidence.

  7. What is the practice among non-Roman St Thomas churches? And should this be a consideration? Should the Syro-Malabar clergy be taking more account of their practices than of Western liturgical changes?
    I’m thinking primarily in terms of the impact on ecumenism and the possibilty of re-union at some time in the future.

    1. There is a tension here that the Eastern Catholic Churches have been dealing with since Vatican II. On the one hand, reunion with their Orthodox brethren is highly desirable; on the other, the Council called all the churches to reform their liturgies in the light of their roots. The has led some to a revision of the Holy /Week rites similar to the Pian reform of the 1950’s. E.g., the Ruthenian parish might be celebrating Holy Thursday Liturgy in the evening while the neighboring Orthodox parish is doing so in the morning. Which value i more important?

      1. Returning to roots would mean facing to the east to pray. But Mr. Basile is correct, I think it should be up to the Christians in question how to pray, not forced on them by clerics on how they should worship.

  8. Perhaps it would be best to leave this controversy to the Church where it is an issue. This extensive discussion of worship customs in this Eastern Church by persons who are not of this rite seems like officious intermeddling .

    1. If we are one family, why can we not discuss what other parts of the family are doing without being labelled officious meddlers?

      1. Perhaps because the family member that has historically been most prone to doing so overplayed its hand and has earned a penitential re-direction to its own intramural issues?

      2. Because of praestantia ritus latini. Until the promulgation of 1983 new code of Western canon law, Benedict XIV’s Etsi pastoralis and Allatae sunt had been invoked as the principle governing the Eastern Churches. But Vatican II said that they are of equal dignity and rank to the Latin Church and are not to governed based on Latin principles and laws, but their own code which was finally issued in 1990. That was when the Eastern Churches were finally forced to take action to obey Vatican II, and cast off anything that didn’t conform to their patrimony and return to it. This is not what these Syro-Malabars are doing.

  9. Eastern churches in communion with Rome find themselves with two differing reasons for Latinizations. One was pervasive in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where there was pressure to conform to Roman practice due to a predominantly Roman hierarchy. The other, more common in Eastern Europe, is borne out of a desire to distance themselves from their Orthodox brethren, and emphasize their communion with Rome. I’m not entirely sure what the motivation is here with the Syro-Malabar.

  10. As a Latin Rite Catholic attached to the Tridentine Rite of the Mass , the recent intramural ferocious efforts to extirpate a liturgy beloved by many from the Latin Church seems more fratricidal than simply familial. But I digress.

  11. Am from Kerala and I belong to Syro Malabar Church. Mass facing the people is celebrated in six dioceses in kerala and some mission dioceses too. Now the petition is sent to Pope from Archdiocese of Trichur and the diocese of Irinjalakuda apart from Ernakukam – Angamaly which is the catedra of the Major Archbishop

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