Two Christian groups in Kerala again clash over direction of prayers

A day before the Christmas festival, violent clashes broke out at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Kochi, Kerala, over the procedure for offering a joint mass between two groups of devotees. Advocates of the united holy mass approached the church while the other group was offering mass in front of the congregation. The altar was destroyed in the conflict between the two factions. Two groups are fighting over which direction to point as they offer prayers, with one group arguing that priests should face the crowd, while the other group supports a unified mass, saying priests should face the altar during Mass.

According to reports, Christians who accept mass in front of the people also offered mass on Friday night. On Saturday morning, the people who support the form of mass approved by the Synod gathered at the Cathedral to express their displeasure.

On Friday, the diocesan administrator elected by the official Church authority and the dissident pastors of the archdiocese faced each other on each side of the altar table. The dissident priests, according to the administrator Fr Antony Poothavelil, celebrated the holy mass, trying to prevent them from entering the altar and celebrating the mass as approved by the synod. Other priests, however, pointed out that Poothavelil deliberately caused trouble by entering the altar and disrupting the ongoing mass.

As they had to take control of the church before 10 am, the protesters vandalized all the artifacts placed on the altar and destroyed the chaos. Although additional officers were sent to disperse the protesters, the attempts were futile.

Even amid the violence, a group of Christians tried to celebrate holy mass in front of the altar. The police were limited to taking strict measures, as the confrontation took place inside the basilica. Supporters of the joint holy mass said the rebel group had been holding a “mass of evil” for the past three days threatening the administrator.

For several decades, the jurisdictions of the Syro-Malabar Church have used various modes of offering mass. While one part of the priests faces the congregation, another faces the altar. In many other dioceses, the Church practices a hybrid between the two. According to the universal style of offering Mass, priests and bishops of all dioceses must perform the rite, facing the altar throughout the ceremony.

The priests of the archdiocese continued to say mass until late on Friday, and as a result a fight between the two groups arose, which continued on Saturday. A congregation supporting the priests said that during the Mass, ladies from the opposite side entered the altar and interrupted them by removing sacred items and literature. Given the situation, the police stationed themselves in large numbers in the area.

On November 27, a similar clash between two groups of devotees over the procedure for offering joint mass on Sundays was reported from the St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Kochi, Kerala. Archbishop Andrews Tazhath, the Apostolic Administrator, was also prevented from entering the Basilica by devotees opposed to the establishment of a joint mass service. Another group of devotees tried to break the lock, which escalated the tension. It has been reported that the violent demonstrators also damaged the property of the church.

Notably, in August 2021, the Synod of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church decided to enforce a uniform method of celebrating the Holy Mass in its churches. It is important to mention here that offering mass is believed to be the best procedure of worship among Christians.

The synod decided that all churches should use the same mass format, with the priest facing the gathering of the faithful at the beginning and end of the mass and facing the altar during the main part of the mass. However, the Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly opposed the introduction of a new format without discussion.

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