Within a few days of his election as the supreme pontiff of Roman Catholics on March 13, 2013, Pope Francis broke new ground by travelling to a youth detention centre in Rome for the traditional Last Supper Mass on Holy Thursday, where for the first time women and Muslims were among those whose feet he washed. The traditional ceremony, also known as Maundy Thursday, commemorates the humility and spirit of service displayed by Jesus Christ when he washed the feet of his disciples during the last supper on the night before his crucifixion.

Since then, the pope has religiously followed this tradition every year, loosening the knot of patriarchal, class and community biases which had gripped the conservative Roman Catholic Church. Last year he washed the feet of refugees, including Muslims, Hindus and Coptic Orthodox men and women at a centre for asylum seekers in north of Rome. This year, he is slated to travel to Paliano prison in south of Rome to celebrate the Mass of the Last Supper, as per Vatican Radio.

Going beyond his own personal convictions, in December 2014, the pope followed it up with a papal decree calling for the inclusion of “all people of God”, including women and people from other religions in this ritual, which, by being more inclusive, he explained, would better reflect Christ’s gesture.

Made public through the document, Decree on Holy Thursday’s Foot Washing Ceremony’ on January 6, 2016, the words, “The men who have been chosen” have been replaced with “Those who are chosen from among the people of God” for the traditional ritual of “washing the feet” on Maundy Thursday. This move has brought in a wisp of fresh air leading to gender equality within the church.

This ritual of washing feet is also referred to as the Mandatum, (hence the term Maundy Thursday) from Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (John 13:14) and also the first word of one of the antiphons that is chanted during the ceremony: “Mandatum novum do vobis…” (I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you, says the Lord). This rite signifies, in a powerful way, the love we are called to have for one another, Francis explained.

Following the footsteps of their supreme religious leader, last year a few dioceses and parishes in India introduced this single-most inclusive liturgical practice and included the poor, the marginalised and women – Catholics and others, in the traditional feet-washing ceremony.

Image courtesy: Noel Rose/Facebook
Image courtesy: Noel Rose/Facebook

Even bishops of Roman Catholic churches in Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi washed the feet of women for the first time.

‘Against the traditions’

But this shift has not come without stiff resistance from within, and many parish priests, even in Mumbai, had refused to abide by the papal directive.

It is hoped that this year more parishes will follow this ritual within the Roman Catholic churches. However, the two Eastern churches, the Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Church of Kerala, have put out a statement that they will not allow women to participate in the washing-of-the-feet ceremony on Maundy Thursday. After a year of deliberations, Mar George Cardinal Alanchery, the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, issued a circular:

 “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 of the Eastern churches.”

Responding with concern to this news report, on March 31, 2017, the Indian Christian Women’s Movement, a network organisation of over 500 women from different Christian denominations, sent out letters to heads of the three churches in India – Roman Catholic, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara – urging them to issue directives to all parishes of their respective denominations to include women and girls in the washing of feet ritual on Maundy Thursday. But the response to this letter has been lukewarm.

It is against this background that the celebration of the ritual of washing of the feet organised by a group, Women’s Lives Matter, gains significance. In keeping with the new directions which Pope Francis has set, the group celebrated the feet washing ceremony with the inmates of Swanthanam Centre for battered Women and children at Kottayam in Kerala on April 11, two days prior to the day marked for the celebrations.

Image courtesy: Noel Rose/Facebook
Image courtesy: Noel Rose/Facebook

The ceremony on April 11, said Kochurani Abraham of the Women’s Life Matter, was inspired by the initiative of the Pope. “The ritual was a means of taking the message of forgiveness, acceptance and mutual care outside the boundaries of the church’s ritual worship,” Abraham told the Hindu. The celebration, she hoped, would help the ecclesiastical leadership to revisit their earlier decision to stick to tradition.

In retaliation to the regressive position held by the Syro-Malabar church, yet another ceremony is being held at Kochi by the Open Church Movement where exclusively women’s feet will be washed at a public event to be held at the IMA Hall, near Maharaja’s College Grounds. A statement issued by this group described as “sad” the stance by Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church Cardinal George Alencherry that women need not be included among those whose feet are washed during the Maundy Thursday ceremonies.

There are clear signs of winds of change blowing within the tradition-bound Catholic churches in India. These acts of assertion have paved the way for organising such symbolic rituals in other institutions such as homes for the terminally ill, physically and mentally challenged, homes for unwed mothers, convicts in prisons. The possibilities are enormous, if only there are progressive Christian groups are willing to take on the challenge. These will help to take the message of inclusion to those who are in most need of the healing touch of Christ in the true spirit of the ritual of washing of the feet which will be celebrated today.

This will also help us to carry forward the example set by Pope Francis and to paraphrase an important commandment given by Christ during the famous Sermon on the Mount to suit the demand of our times, “Whatever you do to the least of my sisters, that you do unto me”.

Flavia Agnes is a women’s rights lawyer and Director of Majlis. Recently, she was invited by Voice of Faith for the March 8 celebrations at the Vatican.