Liberal Christians lash out at Kerala churches refusing to include women in feet-washing ritual

Two Kerala Catholic churches don't want to include women in feet-washing ritual, liberal groups protest
Liberal Christians lash out at Kerala churches refusing to include women in feet-washing ritual
Liberal Christians lash out at Kerala churches refusing to include women in feet-washing ritual
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In the wake of two Catholic churches refusing to include women in the traditional feet-washing ceremony on Maundy Thursday prior to Easter, a few Christian liberal organisations have risen up in protest.

Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday is the day before Good Friday. It commemorates the Last Supper, a day when Jesus is believed to also have washed the feet of his disciples and commanded them to love each other.

Two Catholic churches in the state- Syro Malabar Church and Syro Malankara church- have denied to follow the 2013 decree issued by Pope Francis to include women and young girls in the traditional ritual.

Syro-Malabar Church’s supremo Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alenchery on March 29 had said that the church will continue to follow the Eastern tradition and will only include men in the foot washing ceremony.

A circular from Alenchery to all the Syro-Malabar Churches in Kerala stated that their church had asked for a clarification from Rome about the decree passed by the Pope.

He also claimed that the Pope’s decree was only meant for the Latin Catholic Church as it mentioned “Roman Missal”.

“So, this practice will not be applicable to Eastern Churches,” said the circular from Alenchery.

Since then, there have been protests from certain quarters of the Church.

On April 11, members of a Kottayam-based ecumenical women’s group, Women’s Lives Matter (WLM), conducted a representational foot washing ceremony as a mark of dissent against Alenchery’s circular.

WLM conducted the ritual at a charity home for women and children called Santhwanam where they washed the feet of 12 inmates.

Sr Noel Rose, a women’s rights activist and a nun, called the group’s initiative bold and appreciable.

Another organisation, The Open Church Movement, which is an association of Catholic priests, ex-priests and nuns, observed the feet-washing ceremony on Thursday at IMA hall in Kochi.

In the ceremony, four Catholic priests, i.e. Fr Shibu Kalaparmbil, Fr Abraham Pothottil, Fr Joseph Pallath and Fr Clement, washed the feet of 12 women of different ages.  

“The youngest was a five-year-old girl and the most senior of them was over 60 years old. Through this we proclaim that Christ never gave second position to women. Things should change in our clergy,” chairman of the association Reji Njellani told The News Minute.

“We believe women are the backbone of the Catholic Church. We need Cardinal George Alenchery to withdraw the circular and agree to Pope Francis’ declaration,” he added.

Alenchery’s explanation based on the “Eastern church tradition” has invited criticism from members of the clergy itself.

Fr Paul Thalekat, former spokesperson of Kerala’s Catholic Church, said in his article published in UCA News, “Is there an Eastern exception to this humanism? Perhaps the leaders who decided not to include women in the feet-washing ceremony do not see an emergence of a ‘post-Christian society’ in Kerala, where the church is based, or in most of Asia.”

Stating that leaders of these churches disagreed with the Pope and that Asian churches did not want to depart from their tradition, Fr Paul wrote that “Pope Francis' initiative for the feet-washing ceremony included non-Christians too. But we don't see changes to the Roman Missal allowing the non-baptized to participate in the ceremony. The circular of Cardinal Alencherry is also silent on this.”

Pope Francis included women in the feet-washing ceremony immediately after he took office in 2013.

These two factions of the Kerala Church however continue to deny to follow the Pope’s decree.

Meanwhile, almost all Latin Catholic churches in the state- this faction has the highest number of churches in the state- have included women in the ceremony conducted on Holy Thursday.

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