India’s Eastern Churches Will Wash Only Men’s Feet at Easter

News: World News
by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  •  March 29, 2017   

Fr. Thadathil: "Traditionally the bishop washes the feet of 12 selected priests in the re-enactment"

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KOCHI, India ( - India's two Eastern Catholic Churches are upholding the traditional practice of washing only men's feet on Holy Thursday, amidst increasing pressure to act to the contrary.

Both Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Eastern Catholic Churches are saying they won't be implementing the option granted last year by Pope Francis to include women in their Maundy Thursday ritual, which this year is on April 13.

Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church based in Cochi, India, sent a circular to his archdiocese March 26, noting the Vatican's Congregation for the Oriental Churches in Rome has confirmed the liturgical change didn't apply to them.

"It was clarified that the decree is meant for the Latin Church only both the decree and the letter of the Holy Father, which prompted it, mention specifically only 'Roman Missal,'" he explained. "Thus, this change does not concern the liturgical practices in the Eastern Churches."

Last year, Pope Francis caused liturgical waves when he had his letter promulgated by the Congregation of Divine Liturgy which read:

I therefore decree that the section according to which those persons chosen for the washing of the feet must be men or boys, so that from now on the pastors of the Church may choose the participants in the rite from among all the members of the People of God.

The Syro-Malabar clergy as a whole didn't make use of the papal option. One of their priests, Fr. Joseph Vailikodath of Blessed Sacrament Church, however, in defiance of their liturgical norm did have a foot washing ceremony which included women last Maundy Thursday. Hierarchy of the Syro-Malabar Church were reportedly not happy with his actions.

The priest justified himself by saying he was "just implementing a revolutionary decision" of the Pope. Last Easter the defiant priest remarked, "I just performed parish duty by implementing Pope Francis' message that there should be no discrimination against the marginalized, particularly women and downtrodden."

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, head of the Latin-rite church in India, sent a circular early this month to all bishops encouraging them to consider "all sections of the faithful," including women for the foot-washing ceremony.

Father Paul Thelakat, a priest of the Syro-Malabar archdiocese, also feels women should be included in the Holy Thursday ceremony. The priest remarked, "I do not think any sensible Catholic can say what the pope is saying does not concern me. Such a stand can work as an anarchic force within the Church."

Cardinal Alencherry emphasized that Christ washed the feet of only his 12 disciples and commanded that it be done in His memory. He attested that the Oriental Churches, including the Eastern rite Churches not in union with Rome, have upheld the command of Jesus 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," said the cardinal.

Father Jimmy Poochakkatt, spokesman of the Syro-Malabar Church, explained that the two Eastern churches in India, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara Churches, had asked the Vatican's congregation overseeing Eastern-rite churches if the option of including women in the foot-washing ceremony applied to them. They were told no, it did not.

"We are an autonomous church having freedom to decide on our liturgy, but the synod is our supreme decision-making body. Any liturgical change such as this must come from the synod," said Fr. Poochakkatt.

After the clarification, the 14 bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church convened a synod and decided to uphold the traditional rubric excluding women. The synod's decision not to allow women in the ceremony was made known to all in the Syro-Malabar Church by Cdl. Alencherry's circular of March 26.

Father Bovas Mathew, spokesman for the Syro-Malankara Church, commented that the Malankara Church doesn't feel the need to send out a circular to clarify the issue.

"I think there will not be such circulars in future," said Fr. Mathew. "In Malankara tradition, only bishops conduct washing of the feet. We normally do it in the cathedral.

It is not practical to include women in the ceremony.

He added that people are "very much aware of the tradition," which he described as follows: "Bishops in the place of Jesus wash the feet of 12 men in the place of 12 disciples. At the end of the liturgy one of the 12, representing Peter, washes the bishop's feet."

Father Kuriakose Thadathil, head of Syro-Malabar liturgy, explained the theology of the ceremony is focused on the priesthood, which inherently excludes women:

There are 14 bishops in the church and there will only be 14 washing of feet ceremonies. Traditionally the bishop washes the feet of 12 selected priests in the re-enactment of the divine drama of the Last Supper. It is not practical to include women in the ceremony.

In March of last year, Cdl. Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, made it clear that the option granted by the Pope didn't oblige priests or bishops to select women for the ceremony. In an interview that same month, the cardinal verified that bishops couldn't order their priests to include women in the foot-washing ceremony and that a priest's decision on the matter should be in accord with "the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast."


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