The Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Church of Kerala have said they will not allow women to participate in the washing-of-the-feet ceremony on Maundy Thursday – a re-enactment of Jesus washing the feet of his 12 disciples during the Last Supper, which is performed by a senior member of the clergy during mass on the Thursday before Easter Sunday. The decision comes days ahead of Maundy Thursday on April 13.

However, the Latin Church, which is in communion with the Roman Catholic Church headed by the pope, has decided to include women in its liturgical ceremony.

The participation of women in the ritual became a topic of discussion after Pope Francis washed the feet of female inmates of a juvenile detention centre in Rome in 2013, and followed it up with a papal decree in December 2014 calling for the inclusion of “all people of God”, including women and people from other religions, in the ritual. Implementing his decree, the bishops of Latin Catholic churches in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi washed the feet of women for the first time in 2016.

But the Syro-Malabar Church and Syro-Malankara Church kept the instructions in abeyance. After a year of deliberations, Mar George Cardinal Alanchery, the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, issued a circular last week. “The papal decree is against the traditions followed by the Eastern Churches,” it read. “The decree is applicable only to the Roman Missal. Thus, the change does not concern the liturgical practices in the Eastern Churches.”

The Syro-Malankara Church, too, decided against implementing the papal decree. Its public relations officer Father Bovas Mathew told that the Church had come to this conclusion after considering the liturgical and theological dimensions of the issue. “We didn’t consider the social implications of the decision,” he said. “Our laity never raised concerns against the decision of the Church.”

Thus, Maundy Thursday in Kerala will see priests washing the feet of women only in Latin Catholic churches.

The three Catholic denominations account for half of the state’s 61.4 lakh Christian population.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of India refused to comment, with its spokesperson Theodore Mascarenhas only saying, “The churches have the right to take a decision [on] liturgical matters.”

‘Anti-woman move’

But the decision of the Syro-Malabar Church and Syro-Malankara Church has not gone down well with a group of former priests, who have termed it anti-women and accused the Church of going against the papal decree. They have also announced that the Open Church Movement, a forum set up by the Catholic Priests, Married Clergy and Nuns Association six months ago, will organise a parallel ceremony in Kochi on Thursday. “We will wash the feet of 12 faithful, including women,” said Shibu Kalamparampil, general secretary of the association. “We deplore the anti-women policies of the Syro-Malabar Church and Syro-Malankara Church.”

Kalamparampil was a priest for 12 years with the Vincentian Congregation, a clerical society of the Syro-Malabar Church, before he was defrocked in 2010. He published a memoir, Oru Vaidikante Hrudayamitha (Here is the Heart of a Priest), the same year, detailing the alleged sexual misconduct of priests and financial irregularities in the Church.

“According to rough estimates, around 500 people leave priesthood and nunnery in all Christian denominations every year, unable to bear the inhuman treatment meted out to them,” he said. “A majority of them are coming to our fold.” He claimed the Catholic Priests, Married Clergy and Nuns Association had 200 members presently and “we are expanding by the day”. He added, “Mostly people who were ostracised by the Church seek our services. We are still priests and we conduct services for all Christians, irrespective of their denomination.”

Pope Francis has through a papal decree encouraged churches to include women and people of other faiths in the washing of the feet ritual on Maundy Thursday. (Image credit: Reuters)

Church controversies

The decision not to include women in the Maundy Thursday ritual is the latest controversy to hit the Catholic Church in Kerala. Three days ago, media reports said Mar Mathew Anikkuzhikkattil, the bishop of the Idukki diocese, had in a pastoral letter exhorted girls to avoid wearing clothes that came above their knees while coming to church. “Dress should help keep girls pure,” the letter, which will be read out to the congregation during mass on April 29, said.

It went on to ask parents to train their children to respect priests: “Do not to blame priests and clergy in the presence of children as it will affect their interest in pursuing faith.”

Father Jimmy Poochakkat, official spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar Church, defended the bishop’s letter, saying, “His instructions will help girls to feel safe and secure when they are out in public.”

Anikkuzhikkattil is no stranger to controversial statements. During the Christmas season in December, he had encouraged couples to give up birth control and multiply competitively till their biological cycles permitted them to do so.

Taking the same line, the bishop of Thamarassery diocese, Mar Remigiose Inchananiyil, had in January exhorted the congregation to get their boys married off before the age of 25 and girls before they turn 23 as late marriages have an adverse impact on the birth of children and the well-being of the family.

Kalaparambil, however, said priests did not have the right to dictate how the laity should dress. He also pointed out that the Church was worried about the fallout of the arrest of a priest, Robin Vadakkumchery, in Kannur in February for allegedly raping a minor girl, getting her pregnant and bribing her father to take the fall for the crime. “Implementing a dress code or keeping women away from liturgical services will not cleanse the church in Kerala,” he asserted.

“Change will happen only when the clergy sheds their arrogance and returns their powers to democratically elected Church committees,” he said.