Maundy Thursday feet washing row: Kerala church refuses to include women in rituals

Former priests in Kerala will observe Maundy Thursday on 13 April by washing the feet of women at Marine Drive in the state’s commercial capital of Kochi.

TK Devasia March 31, 2017 14:43:36 IST
Maundy Thursday feet washing row: Kerala church refuses to include women in rituals

Former priests in Kerala will observe Maundy Thursday on 13 April by washing the feet of women at Marine Drive in the state’s commercial capital of Kochi.

The parallel religious ceremony that commemorates Jesus washing the feet of his 12 disciples during the Last Supper is being organised by the Catholic Priests, Ex-Priests and Nuns Association as a mark of protest against the non-inclusion of women in the ritual by two Catholic rites in the state.

Maundy Thursday feet washing row Kerala church refuses to include women in rituals

Representational Image. AFP Photo

Pope Francis had in December 2014 directed Catholic churches to open the rite to all the People of God, including non-Christians, as part of his larger endeavour to make the church more open and inclusive.

Even though all the three Catholic rites in the state owe allegiance to Pope, only the Latin Catholic rite implemented the Papal decree. The other two — the Syro-Malabar church (SMC) and the Syro-Malankara church–stuck to their traditional practice of washing the feet of only men.

The current protests followed the final decision taken recently by the synod of bishops of the SMC, the largest Catholic rite in the country, not to include women in the feet washing ceremony. church head Cardinal George Alencherry said that the synod had felt that the reform was against the Eastern traditions followed by them.

“The Eastern heritage claimed by the two Oriental Churches has come from Hindu and Buddhist culture, which accorded superior status to women. The approach of the two churches towards women is totally against this tradition,” says Shibu Kalamparampil, general secretary of the ex-priests association.

Shibu, who quit the priesthood in 2010 alleging sexual misconduct of priests and financial irregularities in the church, told Firstpost that the Catholic Church in India was treating women as slaves and second class citizens.

He said that the church had also started restricting the movement of women in the wake of the rape and impregnation of a minor girl by Fr Robin Vadakkumcherry, a priest in Kannur district. The Mananthavady diocese, to which the accused priest belongs, was also setting up CCTV cameras in churches to monitor the movement of women.

“This is an open admission that the church does not trust its priests. Instead of taking steps to correct the priests, the church authorities are trying to solve the problem by curtailing the freedom of women. This will alienate the women from the church,” the former priest said.

Association national president Reji Njallani said that the churches were upholding the Eastern heritage only in matters of their interest. He said that the bishops and priests were not ready to follow the Eastern tradition in the administration of churches.

“The churches were governed by committees of laity before the Portuguese established their authority over the church. There has been a strong demand for returning these powers to the democratically elected committees after the church sought to go back to pre-Portuguese days. Unfortunately, the clergy is not ready to shed their power,” he added.

Reji said that the discrimination of women by the church was part of this approach. This, he feels, will lead to the disintegration of the Church. According to Reji, the church is active now because of women.

“They form the bulk of church goers. They are in the forefront in raising funds and implementing various programmes of the church. Many priests even use the women to satisfy their carnal desires. Yet they are treated as untouchable when it comes to honouring them,” Reji said.

He said that Pope was trying to include women and other marginalised sections in the church ceremonies after he saw the faithful deserting the church in several parts of the world. The actions of the church authorities in Kerala will only hasten this process, he added.

Reji pointed out that many Catholics in the state had already started embracing other denominations. This, he said, was because of the wrong acts of the authorities. He said that the association of ex-priests was trying to establish an open church to retain them in the Catholic fold.

“The open church will not have administrative structures and established churches and related institutions like schools and hospitals. We will meet wherever we can. The ex-priests, who are members of the association, will provide whatever spiritual service the faithful requires,” Reji said.

Maundy Thursday feet washing row Kerala church refuses to include women in rituals

Pope Francis. AFP

He said that the ‘rent a priest’ service the association had launched last year as part of the move was already providing sacraments and other spiritual services to the faithful. Many who have been fallen away from the church for various reasons are depending on this service for their spiritual needs, he said.

Reji said that about 200 ex-priests and retired priests had taken membership in the association so far. Most of these priests will be available at Marine Drive at 10 am on 13 April to wash the feet of women. He said that the association was expecting about 1,000 women to participate in the ceremony.

The decision of the two Catholic rites to keep women away from the feet washing ceremony has also evoked protests from women activists. Famous writer and a leader of Aam Admi Party, Sara Joseph, described it as a discrimination against women.

She told Firstpost that the Pope had sought the inclusion of women, members of other religions and several marginalised sections as an act of humanism. The gesture is significant at a time when the world is riven by various conflicts.

“The inclusion of women in the feet washing ceremony by the Pope is also a strong message against the growing atrocities against women and children within the church fold. Our clergy has not understood the spirit of his message. This is one of the major reasons for the growing crimes against women in the state,” she added.

The writer said that these atrocities could be checked to a great extent if the women are given responsible positions in the church. Unfortunately, the church authorities are not willing to accept even the basic rights of women. They are opposing the demand for priesthood for women as they think it will erode their power.

Church authorities have denied that their decision to follow the tradition did not mean neglect of women or discrimination against them. Fr Jimmy Poochakkat, spokesman of the SMC, said the decision was taken in accordance with the Liturgical traditions and practices.

He said that the circular issued by the church head on the issue had enunciated the position clearly. The circular pointed out that Oriental Churches view the Maundy Thursday rites as a sign and example of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross.

“Christ washed the feet of only his 12 disciples with the command to do that in his memory. The Oriental Churches, including those outside Catholic fold, have upheld Jesus’s command by washing the feet of only men or boys. The Syro-Malabar Church wishes to continue this practice in the present pastoral and social situation,” the circular added.

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