Francis last year effectively suspended Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the eastern rite Syro-Malabar church in the southern Indian state of Kerala, amid a controversy over disputed land sales. Francis named a temporary administrator to run Alencherry’s Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, resolve its financial problems and try to heal the divisions the dispute had caused among the priests.
Last month, Francis reinstated Alencherry after the administrator turned in his report. The findings were never made public, and two auxiliary bishops who were suspended along with Alencherry remain suspended.
About 450 priests, including 70 from outside of India, began a hunger strike and prayer vigil last week at the bishop’s house in city of Kochi to protest Alencherry’s reinstatement, the continued suspension of the two bishops and to demand information about the investigation. More than 360 priests signed a petition that was sent to the Vatican.
“We were expecting a positive note from Vatican but unfortunately we got a shock that Vatican terminated the apostolic administrator and brought back Cardinal Alencherry,” said the Rev. Kuriakose Mundadan, secretary of the presbyteral council and one of the protesting priests.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, he said the priests had originally complained that Alencherry bypassed church law requiring consultations before selling the land, and that the sales were made at a steep loss for the church.
In his June 26 letter announcing Alencherry’s reinstatement, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, head of the Vatican’s office for eastern rite churches, hinted that financial controls would be strengthened. He told Alencherry that he must submit monthly financial plans and reports to the Syro-Malabar synod, or governing body, and that synod members are to help him administer the archdiocese.
The synod is to meet again next month to decide further, long-term solutions, Sandri said, adding that he remained deeply concerned about the “grave situation of ecclesial division” in the archdiocese.
“The most important task at hand is therefore rebuilding the communion of the local church,” he wrote.
Mundadan, the protesting priest, said the hunger strike had ended after priests met with members of the synod and presented their demands. “They gave us assurance that our demands will be put forward in the coming synod in August,” he told the AP.
The Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Church are the two main eastern rite churches in India. Together with the Latin rite Roman Catholic Church, the three churches in communion with the Vatican make up only around 1.6 percent of India’s mostly Hindu population.
Earlier this year, police in Kerala — India’s most Catholic state — charged a bishop with repeatedly raping a nun in a case that has generated global headlines amid the church’s sex abuse crisis. The bishop has denied the allegations.
Church members filed a petition against Alencherry last year accusing him of failing to act on the nun’s allegations. The petition remains pending.