Powerful Syro-Malabar Catholic Church gets a new head amidst crises over faith and finances

Shamshabad bishop Raphael Thattil was elected as major archbishop of the church that has the largest denomination of Catholics in India.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jan 11, 2024 | 9:00 AMUpdatedJan 11, 2024 | 9:00 AM

Bishop Raphael Thattil

In an unexpected turn of events, Shamshabad, Telangana, Bishop Raphael Thattil has been elected as major archbishop of the powerful Syro-Malabar Church.

The church is the largest denomination of Catholics in India and prominent among the 22 oriental Catholic churches that are in full communion with Rome.

Thattil will be the successor to the controversial major archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry, who stepped down in early December against the backdrop of many allegations of financial scandals involving him.

Related: Controversial cardinal resigns as head of Syro-Malabar Church

The election


Bishop Thattil

On Wednesday, 10 January, the Church Synod in Kochi in Kerala chose Thattil for the coveted position, and the office of Pope Francis in the Vatican ratified it.

Thattil will now lead the Church — the second-largest Eastern Catholic Church after the Ukrainian Church and the largest of the Saint Thomas Christian (Nazrani) denominations with 4.6 million believers.

Besides spirituality, the Syro-Malabar Church is active in education, social, and health-related fields.

The Church runs 4,860 educational, 262 ecclesiastical, and 2,614 health and charitable institutions.

According to Church authorities, a secret vote was held among the bishops at the synod on Tuesday, and Thattil, who would turn 68 this April, got the majority vote.

The election announcement was made public by Bishop Mathew Moolakkattt at a press conference at the Church’s headquarters at Mount St Thomas in Kakkanad near Kochi.

The synod, with 53 bishops having voting rights, began on Monday. The voting process was completed on Tuesday, said Moolakkatt.

The Kochi-headquartered Church has 65 bishops, including bishops emeriti. In the Synod, in which all bishops are members, only those below 80 have voting rights. Currently, 53 bishops in the Church are below the age of 80.

There are three other archbishops in the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala. Still, the mantle to lead the Church fell on the bishop who has been heading a diocese of migrants outside Kerala based in Shamshabad in Telangana.

Mar Thattil, who belonged to the Archdiocese of Thrissur, has been a bishop since 2010. He was first appointed as the auxiliary bishop of the Thrissur archdiocese.

He is the first bishop of the Shamshabad diocese, formed in 2018 to look after Catholic migrants across the country.

The diocese has jurisdiction over Syro-Malabar Catholics in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, North India, Central India, and Northeast India.

Related: Land deal put Syro-Malabar Catholic Church head on ED radar

The current environment

According to observers, the new major archbishop was elected at a time the Catholic Church in Kerala is witnessing one of its worst periods.

The election of the new major archbishop was necessitated by the resignation of Alencherry, who was forced to exit from the highest office in the wake of protests over introducing a uniform way of offering Mass and a dubious land deal.

The Archdiocese of Ernakulam, the seat of the major archbishop of the Church, was divided over the method of offering the Mass.

The Cathedral Church of the major archbishop has remained closed since December 2022 due to violent disputes over offering Mass.

Alencherry, who had headed the Church since 2011, was forced to quit as the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam in 2019. In the Church, the cardinal also holds the charge of archbishop of Ernakulam.

In 2017, Alencherry faced a land scam allegation, which reportedly led to a loss of ₹90 crore for the Archdiocese, as per an internal committee.

Subsequently, Alencherry had come under the scanner of central agencies such as the Income Tax (I-T) Department and the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

Even after being removed as the archbishop of Ernakulam, Alencherry continued as the head of the Syro-Malabar Church.

Syro-Malabar Church row: Archdiocese panel welcomes Vatican delegate

What lies ahead

The new major archbishop’s election was announced by Alencherry in Kochi in a press conference — an unprecedented departure from the tradition in the Church where such crucial decisions are made public at a meeting of bishops.

He said he was stepping down on health grounds, and his request to quit the post had been pending with the Vatican since 2019.

Moolakkatt told reporters: “We chose a major archbishop in tune with the times. ” He also said God helped the bishops select a new leader who could overcome the Church’s challenges.

Cardinal George Alencherry. (Supplied)

Cardinal George Alencherry. (Supplied)

The election of the new head for the Church brings the curtains down on speculations that have been rife after Cardinal Alencherry quit, citing reasons of advancing age and the new requirements of pastoral care.

Bishop Thattil is widely held in great regard. He said that he has always borne in mind the kindness of Jesus to the masses, as exemplified by the “multiplication of bread and fish”.

Thattil said he would walk and work together and depend on God’s guidance and cooperation from bishops, priests, and laity to carry out his responsibilities.

“Jesus is the head of the Church, and all others are parts of the body,” he added.

The new major archbishop said the position belonged to all, and that God’s grace would guide him. He would, he said, strive for unity and looked forward to working together with the intercession of Mother Mary.

The new major archbishop has his task cut out, and would have to tackle a strident opposition to synod-prescribed Mass in the archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, bring about possible liturgical uniformity, and reconcile the warring factions.

Moolakkatt said the installation of the major archbishop would be held at 2.30 pm on Thursday, 11 January, at the Major Archiepiscopal Curia of the Syro-Malabar Church, Mount St. Thomas, in Kakkanad.