Versus Populum in the Syro-Malabar Church

It feels a little strange to write my fourth post on this matter (see here, here and here ). But problems with the orientation of the priest as he presides the Eucharist continues to be a issue in the Syro-Malabar Church.

Last Thursday some disgruntled members of the faithful of the Major Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly burnt effigies of Cardinal Mar George Alencherry and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri outside a pastoral center in Kochi. Photos of the protest have apparently become widespread on social media of some members of the Syro-Malabar Church (pictures can be seen here)

These events were preceded by a meeting of the Archeparchy’s clergy with 316 priests in attendance. This was a high percentage of the priests, Wikipedia lists 451 priests in the Archeparchy. These passed a motion requesting a further dispensation allowing the priests of the diocese to continue celebrating the Eucharist fully versus populum. This was rejected in line with a February 28 letter from Cardinal Sandri that revoked a previous dispensation.

Unsurprisingly, the official Syro-Malabar Church was not at all pleased at the burning of effigies and condemned the protest.

On one level I feel that I am not qualified to comment on this matter (and in no way do I propose that liturgical controversies be resolved by burning effigies of Cardinals or anyone else). When it comes to the Eastern Rites I am an armchair liturgist. I did an MTh in liturgical theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in NY, but I am a Western priest who always celebrated with the current edition of the Roman Missal.  I have attended various Eastern liturgies and am struck by the beauty that is there. I was also profoundly struck by the work of Fr. Alexander Schmemann in St. Vladimir’s where his presence continues to be felt. On another level however, I consider that these are important issues that the Church, both East and West, needs to reflect on. That is why I am posting on this matter.

Basically, there are two factors at play here and I think it is important to consider both.  On one level there is the current desire of Rome to respect the liturgical traditions and patrimony of the Christian East. Number 6 of Vatican II’s Orientalium Ecclesiarum, the Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite clearly annunciates this principle:

All members of the Eastern Rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life, and that these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement. All these, then, must be observed by the members of the Eastern rites themselves. Besides, they should attain to an ever greater knowledge and a more exact use of them, and, if in their regard they have fallen short owing to contingencies of times and persons, they should take steps to return to their ancestral traditions.

Recently, speaking about Eastern Rites in general, Cardinal Sandri, encouraged Eastern Catholics “to avoid solitary escapes in pursuit of reforms that do not take into account the heritage shared with the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches.”

However, while ecumenism must be a priority for all Christians, it is unlikely that Catholics will reestablish communion with the Eastern Churches in the near future no matter how closely we keep our liturgical practices. Unfortunately, ecumenism is currently an area that is a minefield of different considerations. In times past, undoubtedly the Catholic Church was guilty of a forced Latinization of Eastern Catholics. However, the Eastern Rites are not more perfect than the Western. It is not the case that Eastern traditions are automatically older or more authentic than Western traditions. Despite what may have happened in prior ages, objectively speaking just as the West can and should learn from the East, so should the East learn from the West. Additionally the Eastern rites are not static. Unlike the centralized Western rites, their liturgical development is more a bottom to top phenomenon. Changes happen over time and are gradually adopted and become normal and official as a recognition of what has happened.

So Eastern Catholics cannot be held hostage to Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox liturgical norms.  The principle of Orientalium Ecclesiarum and respect for other Eastern Christians is important.  But the pastoral good and the growth of a genuine Christian spirit that can face the challenges of today’s world and can express the Faith in a way that relates to people today is also a vital principle that ought also to be considered. This balance isn’t easy and there will be trial and error, but the questions must be confronted.

The Syro-Malabar Christians started celebrating versus populum in the wake of Vatican II. Initially this probably mimicked Christians of the Roman Rite whose liturgical books were revised before the Syro-Malabar books were revised.  Now a generation or two later, it might be a little too late to put the genie back into the bottle.  Moreover, unlike the Catholic Churches that use the Byzantine rite, the Syro-Malabar Church does not have an exact equivalent among the non-Catholic Churches that use an East Syriac rite. So the question is, given that millions of Syro-Malabar Christians find versus populum presiding of the Eucharist to be a spiritually beneficial practice, then why oughtn’t it be allowed as an option?

Prior to the twentieth century celebrating versus populum was not a particularly Western liturgical practice. Both East and West prayed ad orientem for most of Christian history. In the West after Vatican II a monumental decision was made to allow versus populum. This wasn’t a particularly Western tradition or a renewal of an earlier liturgical practice. It was a big change that simply made sense for the situation today. Facing a secularized society which suffered from a loss of the sense of the sacred, pastors and liturgists thought that allowing people to see the celebration better would have the potential of increasing active participation in the liturgy.  Admittedly, this doesn’t always work and there is a danger of the liturgy becoming a closed circle or too focussed on the person of the priest.  However, the vast majority of Roman Catholics have found this to be a beneficial practice.

So the question that should be considered today is whether the Christian East is facing similar challenges and similar secularization? If so, then maybe they should consider a similarly radical renewal.

Cover image under a creative commons license is Guy Fawkes’ bonfire, Carshalton Park cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Christopher Hilton –


  1. Interesting. For multiple reasons far too beyond the scope of any one post on this blog, I left the (Latin) Catholic Church in terms of active practice a little over 10 years ago. One of those reasons was the adoption of the new translation of the Mass and the Vatican’s insistence on its use to the complete exclusion of the prior translation. The Vatican seemed (and in light of the present situation with the Syro-Malabar rite as explained herein, still seems) not to realize, to accept, or to care that “unity” need not mean “uniformity,” especially not to the degree they might prefer. The well-known principle of “lex orandi, lex credendi” does have its place, but there seems to be no acknowledgement that the orientation of the priest while at the altar has (and, indeed, CAN have) no effect whatsoever on whether the Eucharist is validly celebrated or not. While valid arguments may be made for or against one posture or the other, the fact is that versus populum celebrations are the norm for certain faithful of the SM rite, just as much as ad orientem is what others expect or find spiritually helpful.

    My point in saying all this is that there seems to be no reason why both orientations could be allowed simultaneously, at the discretion of each priest and the faithful in his care. Some would celebrate VP and some AO, and some might even switch orientations from time to time This way, each “side” could get its way while hopefully gaining a better (or perhaps renewed) appreciation for the other.

    A similar “big tent” approach could also provide a solution to bickering and resentment over translation issues. Whether one prefers Latin, dynamic equivalence, or formal equivalence, they all express the same faith in different ways. This type of attitude could even, I’d say, begin to promote dialogue and healing among even currently separate denominations of Christianity if embraced on a wide enough scale.

    1. Would you also advocate this “big tent” approach with the ancient and new forms of the Roman Rite?

      1. In a word: yes. As long as as much care can be taken as possible to ensure that all acknowledge the validity of the diverse forms of expression in their midst and the faith itself isn’t compromised. The tridentine mass is no more or less valid (or meaningful for those who attend) than the Novus Ordo, or any translation of it.

  2. Here is the Problem,
    Nobody wants to talk about the Laity’s Role or Wishes
    Majority 99.50% of Laity in
    Ernakulam-Angamaly Major Archdiocese wants Versus Populum Qurbana(Holy Mass Equilant -East Syriac Rite)

    According to our View, we want active and actual Participation in Holy Qurbana
    Proposed 50 : 50 Qurbana hides important Parts from Laity ,

    We are very passionate about seeing and Experiencing Qurbana.
    We believe, We are Worthy to See and Experience the Mysteries of Holy Qurbana becuase of Our Royal Priesthood…

    The Royal Priesthood Gifted by God In Holy Baptism , Second Vatican council reaffirmed the Royal Priesthood of the Laity

    I totally Agree , Burning the Effigy is not a Good way to protest, even we are surprised by this Protest

    but the majority of People believes that Cradinal Sandri is not even considering the request we sent Him
    Not even informing Holy Father on these Matters…
    His self contradictory directives disregarding Canon Laws are creating more Chaos…

    Priest from other Diocese came to our Bishop’s House to give support to the very few people demanding 50:50 Qurbana… Majority of them are from Other Diocese, they even bringed divisive & controversial Politician…

    Let us Celebrate Holy Qurbana Versus Populum , let each Diocese decide
    what way they want to celebrate Holy Qurbana
    Adorientem or
    Versus Populum or
    the new 50 : 50
    Pls Pray for Us… Pls pray with us so that we can Celebrate and Experience Holy Qurbana Versus Populum , Thank You

    *Forgive me fory language ( Grammatical mistakes) I’m not a native speaker

  3. In my experience in both Eastern and Western liturgies — all Catholic — I was surprised to have concluded that the orientation of the priest is not always a major factor in the participation of the assembly.
    I currently attend a Melkite parish, where we have both an iconostasis and liturgical ministers who face East. What we have in abundance is assembly participation, facilitated by the use of the vernacular (the switch from Arabic to English began before Vatican II); by the assembly singing parts often designated “choir,” without musical accompaniment; and by the frequent dialogues and litanies between the ministers and the assembly.
    I was surprised to hear how popular the Eastern rites are among the “young trads” who also attend EF masses, since I was struck almost immediately by how very Vatican II our celebrations are.
    OTOH I have attended some Byzantine liturgies, both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox, where singing by a cantor or choir obscured much of the anaphora other than the Institution Narrative; that I did not like.
    I know next to nothing about Syro Malabar liturgy. My point here is that which way the priest faces is not the only factor in how well a liturgical practice conforms to the ideals of Vatican II, whether prescribed for the East or the West.

  4. The “versus populum” is only the tip of the iceberg. At the core is the attempt from few radical orientalists to convert Syro-Malabar Church into something like the Assyrian Church of East. Want to see the evidence? See the Wikipedia page of Nestorius – where some editors claim he is venerated in Syro-Malabar Church.

    I grew up in Syro-Malabar Church all my life. We learned in our Catechism that Nestorius was a heretic. But now, they are changing all those. Even bishops have started venerating Nestorius. Few months ago, I was shocked to see the facebook page of my Syro-Malabar diocese, Chicago, making a post “in memory of” Mar Nestorius and Mar Theodore of Mopsuestia – two Greek bishops unknown to 99.99% of Syro-Malabar Catholics.

    The problem faced by faithful is exacerbated by the blind office bearers in the Vatican dicastery. A very good example of their blindness is this statement: [we Syro-Malabar should] “avoid solitary escapes in pursuit of reforms that do not take into account the heritage shared with the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches.”

    That statement is true for some Eastern churches; but does not apply to Syro-Malabar Church. The reason is because the Oriental Orthodox Church began in India after importing the Syrian-Oriental rite in the 17th century, once they separated from Rome. Their rite and traditions are foreign to us, Syro-Malabar Catholics. Why should Syrian Catholics mimic them? It’s like asking Western Catholics to mimic the traditions of Protestants and share in their heritage.

    The crisis has its root, after a few bishops – in the 1980s – began the attempt to resurrect the Nestorian rite based on some antiquated approvals of Holy See for those rites. The pretext is that we followed Nestorian rite a millennium ago! How ridiculous!

    All the good work done in the past are now being undone for this. If they succeed, the Syro-Malabar Church will soon be un-intelligible for its own faithful.

  5. None of my business, but a couple of questions in my mind.
    1/ is this versus populum an ancient part of the rite, or an innovation following Vatican II?
    2/ is it really the case that 35 dioceses are completely content with the new dispensation, and one diocese is 99.5% against it?

    My uninformed expectation is that the Holy Qurbana is like all rites I know in having a first didactic part, which I used to know as the Mass of the Carechumens, and a distinct second sacrificial part the Mass of the Faithful. It is entirely appropriate that the first is oriented to the congregation and the second is not. In the Orthodox Divine Liturgy the scripture is proclaimed from among the congregation, the priest coming out of the doors to listen to the Gospel, and admonishing the people to be attentive with him. In the newest form of the Roman Rite – Divine Worship : the Missal – we see precisely this distinction of orientation, first towards the congregation, then towards the altar.

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