Pope Francis confirmed the election of the new head of the India-based Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
Bishop Raphael Thattil of Shamshabad, 67, was elected major archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly by the Syro-Malabar bishops’ synod 9 January. Pope Francis confirmed the election the same day, the Vatican announced 10 January.
Archbishop Thattil succeeds Cardinal George Alencherry, 78, who retired 7 December. He had led the Syro-Malabar Church, the largest of the Eastern-rite Catholic churches in India, since 2011.
The cardinal had requested to resign in 2019 in an attempt to end some of the tensions and divisions in the archdiocese, but the Syro-Malabar synod of bishops had advised the pope not to accept his resignation at the time. The pope had agreed and appointed an apostolic administrator in 2022.
The pope also confirmed 10 January that retired Bishop Bosco Puthur of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of St Thomas the Apostle of Melbourne, Australia, would continue as apostolic administrator of the archdiocese—a post he was appointed to when the cardinal retired in December.
In a letter to Archbishop Thattil, Pope Francis wrote, “I pray that, after the example of your venerable predecessors, you may strive to offer a generous and fruitful pastoral ministry to the flock now entrusted to your care” and to remember the poor and those most in need.
“May the Holy Spirit foster the unity, fidelity and mission of the Syro-Malabar Church, so that it may grow and flourish under your paternal guidance,” the pope said in the letter released 10 January.
The archdiocese has been facing a number of serious tensions, particularly regarding the implementation of a uniform celebration of the liturgy.
The pope had told Catholics of the archdiocese in a video released 7 December: “See to it that by Christmas 2023 your archdiocese humbly and faithfully agrees to get in step with the rest of your church, respecting all the directions of your synod.”
After years of debate about tradition, Latinisation and modernisation of the liturgy, in 1999 the synod of bishops of the Syro-Malabar church issued uniform rubrics for the celebration of the Eucharist, called the Holy Qurbana by members of the Eastern-rite church.
They were trying to end a situation in which some priests faced the altar during the entire liturgy, while others faced the congregation throughout the liturgy. The bishops’ decision was to have the priest face the altar during the eucharistic prayer but face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word and again after Communion.
Priests in most Syro-Malabar dioceses quickly complied with the bishops’ decision, although dispensations were issued for the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly and a few other territories. The bishops decided to end those dispensations in November 2021.
The Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency, a group of priests, religious and laity in Ernakulam-Angamaly, protested the way the dispensation was revoked and insisted on continuing to celebrate the entire liturgy with the priest facing the congregation as had been the practice since 1970. The group claims to have the support of almost all the priests and faithful of the archdiocese.
The dispute has led to protests, hunger strikes and shoving matches, including inside St Mary’s Cathedral in Kochi, which led to its closure.
Without mentioning specifics, the pope said in his video message he knows there are reasons for opposing the synod’s rubrics “that have nothing to do with the celebration of the Eucharist,” and he defined those reasons as “worldly.”
“Be careful that the devil does not persuade you to turn yourselves into a sect,” he said to all the Syro-Malabar faithful who object to the uniform liturgy.
The new head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church was born in Trichur in 1956 and earned a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1980 and spent several years as director of the diocesan Biblical Catechetical Liturgical Centre and then was named chancellor and judge of the Archeparchy of Trichur.
He was the first rector of the Mary Matha Seminary from 1998 to 2007 “where he made a great contribution to the growth of the major seminary,” according to the biography provided by the Vatican.
He was the vicar of the Archeparchy of Trichur until he was appointed its auxiliary bishop, a position he held from 2010 to 2017. In 2013, Pope Francis also made him apostolic visitor for those Syro-Malabar faithful in India who live outside their own territory.
After the erection of the new Eparchy of Shamshabad in 2017, he was appointed its first bishop.
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is one of the 22 Eastern Catholic churches in full communion with Rome and is the largest Eastern Catholic Church after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.