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Towards altar or laity? Syro-Malabar Church faces dilemma

An age-old debate regarding the manner of conducting Holy Mass has resurfaced in the Syro-Malabar Church, pitting one section of the community against the other.

Published: 07th January 2020 06:33 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th January 2020 06:33 AM   |  A+A-

Syro Malabar Church head Cardinal Mar George Alencherry

Syro Malabar Church head Cardinal Mar George Alencherry (Photo | EPS)

Express News Service

KOCHI:  An age-old debate regarding the manner of conducting Holy Mass has resurfaced in the Syro-Malabar Church, pitting one section of the community against the other. A lack of agreement on how the priest should conduct the Holy Mass, by facing towards the altar (east) or facing the laity has the community engaged in a heated discussion.

The differences in liturgical practice within the Church have been existing since 1968. The Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese (representing the Ernakulam, Kothamangalam, Thrissur and Irinjalikuda regions) and Changanassery Archdiocese (Thodupuzha, Kottayam and Kanjirappally regions) conduct Holy Mass by facing the laity and altar, respectively.

Now there seems to be a move to bring about uniformity in the practice — the first part facing people and second part turning towards east — though a consensus has been eluding.“All over the world, irrespective of churches and rites, Christians were facing east when praying or offering Holy Eucharist. But that tradition changed in the Catholic Church, with the II Vatican Council in the 1960s. After the council, the priests started facing people during the Mass.

This was accepted in Latin rite universally,” said senior priest and Syro-Malabar Church former spokesperson Fr Paul Thelakat.“‘Where two or three are gathered in my name I am in their midst,’ was a key inspiration (Matthew 18:15-20).  Now all over the world, the Catholic Eucharist celebration is normally facing the people,” he added. 

‘Facing the altar signifies marching towards God’

The Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese argues there is no meaning in turning to the east, for the eastern orientation was introduced by the Roman Emperor Constantine.“Constantine made Sunday a holy day, December 25 Christmas and Easter day on Sunday, all because of the Roman devotion to Sun God which was the divinity of the Roman Empire. This divinity implies a nature of the Roman authority of Caesar,” said Fr Thelakat.

“We can’t ascertain the so-called apparition, but it some way deconstructs the cross and the personality of Christ. Constantine was converting Christ to Sun God, and the cross became a sign of conquest and domination,” he added.“Moreover, the Holy Mass is a memorial of Christ’s life, death and resurrection; Christ remains man and God. To turn to God we’ve to turn to man, it’s in man’s face we have to see the epiphany of the divine,” said Fr Thelakat.

Syro-Malabar Church Pala diocese former spokesperson Fr Mathew Chandrankunnel said facing the altar signifies marching towards God.“Christ is referred to as Rising Sun and the east has its significance in the Bible as well. There are times when the priest faces the laity. But amid all these differences and arguments, there are even those who give predominance to the essence of the Holy Mass rather than how it is conducted. It would be the Liturgy Commission of the Synod to have a final say in the liturgy to be followed by the Church,” said Fr Chandrankunnel.

TOPIC OF DISCUSSION
The differences in liturgical practice within the Church have been existing since 1968
Now there seems to be a move to bring about uniformity in the practice — the first part facing people and second part turning towards east
The topic will come up for discussion at the Synod which begins on Tuesday

What are the Liturgical differences? 
The difference relates to the position in which the priest stands while conducting Holy Mass in the Syro Malabar Church. There are only two orientations -- either the priest faces the East or faces the people. In the Syro-Malabar church both the traditions are being practised. In some dioceses, the priest celebrates the mass facing the East or the altar.

What is the significance of both orientations? 
Holy Mass conducted by facing towards the Altar (East) signifies marching towards God while facing towards the laity signifies that the Holy Mass is a memorial of Christ’s life, death and resurrection; Christ remains man and God. To turn to God, the priest turns to the people.

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