50,000 Syro-Malabar Christians Protest in Favor of Versus Populum

Yesterday’s Times of India reports that 50.000 Syro-Malabar Christians of the Ernakulam Angamaly archdiocese of the Syro Malabar Church took to the streets to protest in favor of celebrating the Eucharist in the versus populum orientation and in protest of the removal of their archbishop, Mar Antony Kariyil CMI.

This is undoubtedly a very  convoluted story, for more background see my previous posts  (here, here, here, and here).  The Pilar has also provided a good background on the situation.  It is important to note that this is not just a liturgical dispute.  The problem is exacerbated by other issues including financial scandal due to selling some Church property at what many consider to be $10,000,000 below market value.  This has obliged Cardinal George Alencherry to step aside from governing the archdiocese and the Vatican appointed Archbishop Kariyil to manage the day to day affairs of the archdiocese.  But Archbishop Kariyil allowed the priests to continue to celebrate the Eucharist versus populi and it seems that this was the reason that the Nuncio to India obliged him to resign last week, reportedly giving him 24 hours to write a letter of resignation.

So everything is far from well in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese. I imagine that the various news reports are not enough for most of us to understand the different nuances and various currents of internal Church issues that are at play here.  But, all things being equal, I would still propose that the celebration of the Eucharist versus populum is the best manner to celebrate the Eucharist today.  However, there are probably many factors that I am unaware of. The history of contact between the native Saint Thomas Christians of India and the Roman Church has been marked by problems and serious misunderstandings since the early sixteenth century culminating in the 1599 Synod of Diamper and the resulting cleaving of the Church into at least seven smaller Churches.

Sadly liturgical disputes, such as this one, are often symptoms of deeper problems in the life of the Church. When we face a lack of communion within a Christian community, then, it is more than likely that there is a symphony of problems to solve and that a simple rubrical decision will not solve things. Pope Francis may well have been thinking of this situation in the Syro-Malabar Church when he warned a gathering of Eastern liturgists in Rome last February that “if we give scandal by our liturgical disputes … we play the game of the master of division.”


  1. “Byzantine” here asking with nothing but honest curiosity: Do you really think the eastern churches (Orthodox included) would be better off turning their priests around. If not is that merely a matter of the faithful not being ready, or is the “best manner of celebrating the eucharist” possibly an overstatement? At my parish the Royal doors are closed throughout the consecration and I assume that would need to go with the reorientation. Even so that leaves the iconostasis which is rather opaque. Take all of these considerations as purely theoretical but I’ve long wondered at the current liturgical mindset being applied to my particular churches liturgy, architecture, etc.

    1. What I find interesting and puzzling and , yes ironic, isn’t so much that a significant number of the laity want the Mass facing the nave, but rather it is Pope Francis and the Vatican supporting ad orientem for this particular liturgy.

    2. Jacob

      My full thoughts can be found in the Alcuin Club booklet I published a few years ago: https://www.academia.edu/33263157/Liturgical_Orientation_the_Position_of_the_President_at_the_Eucharist

      If you can’t find the full booklet, look for me on the St Patrick’s Pontifical University Maynooth, Ireland website and send me an email and I might be able to help.

      But basically I see a lot of difference between a Byzantine church which has probably never used versus populum in the celebration of the Liturgy and a Spyro Malabar parish that has been using it for the last 50 years.

      Ideally I consider it to be the best orientation for most Eucharistic liturgies today, but I do recognize that the world is often far from ideal and see that real world situations need real world solutions and that liturgically there are no magic bullets.

  2. During the Eucharistic Prayer the priest is addressing God the Father, not the congregation. Why, then, is it so important to celebrate the Mass versus populum?

      1. But this turns the congregation into mere spectators rather than those who join with the priest acting in persona Christi praying to the Father. Further, especially with the elimination of the numerous signs of the Cross in the new Mass, there is nothing to see other than the priest with his hands held out.

      2. Not necessarily. Their voiced responses and sung acclamations suggest the liturgy is a dialogue of ministers and people with one another and with God. Alas, it is the TLM indulgence for staging the liturgy like a concert or other performance. And no, the people don’t want to see the priest or his crosses; they want to see the elements.

    1. First of all, it’s not versus populum but versus altarem.

      Secondly, it so happens that GIRM 299 lays down the norms for the altar, as follows:

      The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.
      Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.

      A footnote references the 1964 instruction Inter Oecumenici, para 91:

      The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there.

      In other words, this particular stipulation has been liturgical law for some 57-plus years (implementation date was 7 March 1965). Why is that so hard to understand?

      1. To address your first point, the Latin text does actually say versus populum.

        But to the main point, your response does not give any reason why such a directive should have been given in the first place. The posture of the priest for over a thousand years (let us put aside our likely disagreement about the centuries beforehand) has been for the priest and the congregation to face the altar together, i.e. ad orientem. Why would it have been considered necessary to change this to versus populum and thus issue the directive in the first place?

        Finally, the Congregation of the for the Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a clarification in 2000 (Prot. No. 2036/00/L) that corrects your misunderstanding of GIRM 299:

        The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been asked whether the expression in n. 299 of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani constitutes a norm according to which the position of the priest versus absidem [facing the apse] is to be excluded. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after mature reflection and in light of liturgical precedents, responds:

        Negatively, and in accordance with the following explanation.

        The explanation includes different elements which must be taken into account. First, the word expedit does not constitute a strict obligation but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum (detached from the wall). It does not require, for example, that existing altars be pulled away from the wall. The phrase ubi possibile sit (where it is possible) refers to, for example, the topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc.


      2. A letter from the Congregation of the same year (Prot. No. 564/00/L) also stated:

        THIS DICASTERY wishes to state that Holy Mass may be celebrated versus populum or versus apsidem. Both positions are in accord with liturgical law; both are to be considered correct. There is no preference expressed in the liturgical legislation for either position. As both positions enjoy the favor of law, the legislation may not be invoked to say that one position or the other accords more closely with the mind of the Church.

        Thus there is no particular law mandating, nor even preferring celebration versus populum.

      3. GIRM 299 talks about a free-standing altar that all can get around as “desirable whenever possible”. Clearly that does not mean compulsory, but it does exhibit a strong wish that this should happen except in cases where it is physically impossible to do this (I think of some small chapels where the sanctuary area is too small to permit such a re-ordering). When Inter Oecumenici talks about the altar as occupying a place where it is “truly central” so that everyone’s attention focuses there, it is not playing games but presenting us with an ideal.

        I think it was Gordon Truitt, former editor of the NPM journal Pastoral Music, who first pointed out that when everyone is facing the altar, from whatever point of the compass, we are all in fact facing in the same direction. A good word to describe this would be that we face “Christward”, not toward each other.

        You asked where this obsession with versus populum comes from, and I explained it. The fact is that it is your obsession, not ours. Our obsession is actually withversus altarem:— being Christward, being a visible expression of a celebrating community. Even the usual theatre-style layout, with serried rows facing an altar on a stage, is not conducive to that symbolism, and instead tends to promote the role of actors v. spectators. We should have grown out of it by now, but alas many have not yet done so.

        As far as the statements by CDW in 2000 are concerned, that was of course right in the middle of a period when those at the helm were actively trying to dismantle what had taken place in the wake of Vatican II. To say that there is no preference expressed in the legislation was simply untrue, as I have demonstrated. There is in fact a clear preference, though not an obligation.

        The corresponding personnel today have a different perspective, and, like Pope Francis, are intent on (re-)building and moving forward rather than standing still if not going backward.

      4. That GIRM 299 is about a free-standing altar and not about Mass being celebrated versus populum is the point. These are two different issues. Throughout the Middle Ages many churches had free-standing altars while the Mass was said ad orientem. The Orthodox, too, use free-standing altars with the Mass being said ad orientem. Personally, I like a free-standing altars raised on steps and surmounted by a baldacchino.

        In the Mass Christ is not the object of our prayers, the Father is. We are worshipping “through Him, with Him, and in Him.” Our focus should therefore not be Christ represented by the altar as the end of our prayers, but through the sacrifice on the altar to the One to whom that sacrifice offered. Gathering around the altar obscures this. This is brought out more clearly with the priest and the people facing in the same direction, the priest acting in persona Christi leading the people in prayer to the Father. It is not a question of a “theatre-style” layout but of the priest at the head of a gathered community addressing, with the people, the Father.

        In any case, celebration ad orientem is clearly a legitimate option in the Mass of Paul VI. One can hardly be accused of going against Vatican II by utilizing what is authorized by the Mass that is presented as the product of Vatican II. To insist on celebration versus populum reveals an agenda that goes beyond Vatican II or even the new Mass.

  3. I have found it instructive to read up on the Syro-Malabar situation. If nothing else it makes it clear what an enormous headache would face any Pope who tried to bring in ad orientem etc. wholesale in the Novus Ordo!

    I live in the diocese of Westminster, UK, which is where Cardinal Sarah gave his talk about ad orientem a few years ago, a talk which our local bishop immediately responded to by saying that no priest should start celebrating ad orientem without discussing it with him first. Our bishop is no enemy of ad orientem (he uses it himself at churches where it is the norm) but presumably he sees the potential for all sorts of arguments at the parish level if hot-headed priests suddenly bring it in.

    I’m an ex-Anglican, and I note that the Ordinariate rite of Mass encourages the ad orientem posture. Taken together with the Vatican’s position on the Syro-Malabar dispute it seems the Vatican’s view is that ad orientem is good in some cases or for some people but that it’s a bad idea to try to foist it on congregations who aren’t used to it. That seems wise as far as it goes, but it is frustrating for those of us who like it but don’t have access to it: without official encouragement it’s hard to see a parish priest making the change.

  4. Sorry, me again. I think this has been suggested now and again by certain bishops, but I wonder if this is an area where some kind of synthesis might be achievable by alternating between the two postures. Using ad orientem during Advent and Lent, for example, and for certain feasts which point towards the coming of Christ more than to his presence (such as the Annunciation, or the Nativity of John the Baptist) might add to the depth of the liturgy in places where versus populum is now used exclusively.

    Just a thought.

    1. I have attended a few masses in different dioceses where the Liturgy of the Word is versus populum and the Liturgy of the Eucharist is ad orientem. Perhaps this is a good solution.

  5. My family legend (I am the only Latin Mass guy in the immediate clan, by the way):

    Rural Arkansas, lovely old parish. Our family were anchors of it. High altar was a piece of pride – marble, imported from Europe. Modest, I am sure, probably a catalogue piece, but we are talking about cotton country here. Meant a lot to them.

    It survived the changes initially, with a movable altar put in front of it. A rather difficult new pastor came along in the early 80s or so. The way the story goes, he floated the idea of “renovating” the sanctuary. He was told how much that altar meant, and please to keep it.

    In response, he took unilateral action, so it goes, the parishioners came to Mass the week following this appeal only to find that the pastor had hired a wrecking crew to get in front of any conversation about the matter. They were treated to the stomach-turning sight of sliced-and-diced adoring marble angels and chunks of altar in a heap in the parking lot. Really reinforced their sense of the sacred space, the centrality and sacredness of the altar, and a sense of being “at home” in their parish, don’t you think?

    A German American parish I worked at, with a full set of fifty-foot-tall hand carved Hackner altars from the turn of the century, matching font, pulpit, pews, and imported stained glass, nearly had the same story, but were proactive enough (chaining themselves to the rail for extended periods of time) to save their old furnishings until Fr Attila the Wannabe was reassigned. Now, of course, people regard the parish as a treasure for architecture, history, and craftsmanship, and one of the most beautiful churches in the state.

    Let us suppose that for some arcane reason versus populum is the intrinsically better symbol. It is completely undermined in the hearts of these people for lack of charity.

    Our bearing and our approach, our conversion of heart, matters far more than our externals, at least those falling within the realm of what is at least minimally acceptable.

  6. Sean Connolly, I’m so sorry that happened to your family and their church. I think it is very painful when newly arrived priests, however well meaning, try to impose dramatic changes on church communities that have been together long before them, especially physical changes that cannot be
    changed back. I have heard stories from both sides of the liturgy arguments such as new renovations carried out with a congregation’s time and finances immediately re-renovated when a new pastor comes. I really hope all priests understand their responsibility to get to know their parishes and understand their traditions and not just see their role as “fixing” the parish they have been assigned. Dramatic back and forth changes every new pastor are very disruptive and deeply hurtful to the people attending a church. How many people lose heart and quit?

  7. The Ernakulam Syro-Malabar issue is the product of a few priests who consider themselves above the Church and even the Pope. This 2000 year old Christian Rite has her own traditions which was hampered or their dreams were killed by the western missionaries who tried to latinize an Eastern Catholic Church. after Vatican II the Syro-Malabar Church tried to bring back its traditional cebration of liturgy and the Ernakulam community expressed no interest. After a long period of time and revisions discussions nad discernment, the Church c ame in to an agreement (all Dioceses) in the Curia which was approved by Holy Sea and asked the church to follow the rivised liturgy following her traditions.. While the rest of the Syro-Malabr Church around the world implemented the new liturgy, facing the congrgation and facing the altar, some of the Ernakulam diocese’s priests refused to obey a Papal order. to follow the new liturgy. So they marched the streets against the Pope, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, the Curia and the real faithful in the Church. These people arew funded by anti-Christian organizations and everybody do have an obligation to pray for these misguided people who march against the church and the Pope. You mentioned about the financial issues and I must say, after a full investigation, the Communist govet of the state siad, there were no improprities . So, the basic issue is these few people wants to celebrate the Liturgy the way they wanted and I dont think it will work with the universal church.

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