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Pope Francis has confirmed the January 9 election of His Beatitude Raphael Thattil as Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly in India, the Holy See Press Office announced on January 10, 2024. The new archbishop, aged 67, takes over the leadership of the Syro-Malabar Church, an Eastern Catholic Church based in India that has been troubled in recent years by a serious liturgical dispute, with some priests refusing to comply with reform.
Bishop Thattil was elected by the Synod of Syro-Malabar Bishops – the assembly of this autonomous Church – that met in Kerala. He had been the head of the Eparchy of Shamshabad since 2017. He succeeds Cardinal George Alencherry, whose resignation from the pastoral government of the Syro-Malabar Church was accepted on December 7 — a rare decision for Eastern Churches where, by law, leaders are not obliged to resign.
Born in Trichur on April 21, 1956, Bishop Thattil holds a doctorate in Oriental Canon Law from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He speaks Malayalam, English, Italian, and German.
He was ordained a priest on December 21, 1980, and served in the Diocese of Trichur, where his roles included vice-rector of Aranattukara Seminary, director of the Diocesan Biblical Catechetical Liturgical Centre, chancellor and ecclesiastical judge, and rector of Mary Matha Seminary.
His Beatitude Thattil was elected auxiliary bishop of Trichur on January 18, 2010, and ordained a bishop the following April 10. On December 23, 2013, Pope Francis appointed him Apostolic Visitor for the faithful of the Syro-Malabar Church residing in India but outside the principal territory of the Church. Then on October 10, 2017, he was appointed first Bishop of the newly erected Shamshabad eparchy.
Pope calls for unity
In a letter published on January 10, Pope Francis confirmed Bishop Thattil’s election as Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, “Father and Head of this beloved” Syro-Malabar Church. It numbers around 5.5 million faithful, mostly in India.
“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,” the Pope wrote in his letter. “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,” he said, without referring directly to the ongoing liturgical dispute.
Bishop Bosco Puthur will remain the Apostolic Administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly. These two roles, which function as head of this diocese of 655,000 faithful and head of the 35 dioceses of the Syro-Malabar Church, traditionally went hand in hand but had been recently separated following the disputes.
Insistence on priest facing the people
For years, around 400 priests from Ernakulam-Angamaly have refused to comply with a liturgical reform voted by their Synod in 1999, despite Rome sending several administrators and apostolic delegates to try to resolve the conflict. The situation escalated under the leadership of Cardinal Alencherry, elected in 2011, who, in addition to the liturgical quarrel, was implicated in a financial affair linked to the purchase of land.
In December, in an unprecedented move, Pope Francis sent a video to dissident pastors threatening excommunication on December 25 if the new “unified” Mass was not implemented. “Restore communion, remain in the Catholic Church!” the Pontiff implored, warning them against the risk of becoming “a sect.”
According to Catholic News Agency the unified liturgy was reportedly respected throughout the diocese on Christmas Day, but tensions remain high, as some of the faithful continue to voice their opposition. Some pastors have already announced their intention to return to the liturgy facing the people throughout. At the end of 2023, some Vatican officials warned that the specter of excommunication was “very real.”