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MUMBAI, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - An Indian priest has conducted an interfaith service of foot washing on Maundy Thursday in defiance of liturgical rules and biblical teaching, causing scandal to faithful Catholics in the archdiocese of Bombay.
Father Reginald Mascarenhas, parish priest of St. Vincent Pallotti Church, Marol, washed the feet of 12 Hindu, Sikh and Muslim men and women at the Holy Mass, ritually re-enacting the Last Supper of Jesus with the 12 Apostles.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments' rules on foot washing categorically state that those invited to present themselves for the act of foot washing must be chosen "from among the people of God."
Mascarenhas, a Pallottine priest, defended his act as "a humble attempt to share the love of Christ that transcends all barriers — such as caste, creed, linguistic and religious differences."
"We need to understand that everyone is a son or daughter of the same God," Shyam Auti, a 61-year-old Hindu priest, told media.
"I never imagined a priest would be washing my feet when I was invited to be part of the function," said 56-year-old Satnaam Singh, vice president of a Sikh gurdwara.
"I was literally in tears and wanted to tell him [Fr. Mascarenhas] not to do it, as he is a spiritual person. But I did not do so because I felt it would offend him," remarked Imran Shaikh, a 45-year-old Muslim social worker.
Even though Pope Francis changed the rules in 2016 to include women, deviating from earlier tradition, the decree clearly instructs pastors to choose "a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the people of God."
"This group may consist of men and women and, ideally, of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople," the decree states. However, since the liturgical act replicates Jesus washing the feet of His disciples, it does not envision the inclusion of people of other religions.
"I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen," Francis instructed Cdl. Robert Sarah, the cardinal who was then prefect of the Vatican dicastery that regulates the liturgical practices of the Universal Church.
The pontiff, however, violated his own directive by washing and kissing the feet of not just baptized Catholics, but four female and eight male migrants — including three Muslims (from Mali, Syria and Pakistan), a Hindu from India and four Catholics from Nigeria.
Francis maintained that the illegal immigrants invited to offer themselves for foot washing were "brothers," despite having "different cultures and religions."
The liturgical act was performed at a detention center for asylum seekers in the Roman municipality of Castelnuovo di Porto on Maundy Thursday in 2016. Only a fraction of the 892 asylum seekers living at the shelter attended the pontiff's service.
Francis also shocked faithful Catholics within weeks of his 2013 election by performing the ritual on women and Muslims at the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Rome.
"It is the example of the Lord," Francis explained, noting that "He was the most important, but He washed the feet of others. The most important must be at the service of others."
A Rome-based biblical scholar, however, told Church Militant that Pope Francis and Fr. Reginald Mascarenhas had "completely misunderstood and distorted the meaning of the sacramental act of foot washing as uniquely narrated in St. John's Gospel."
The academic elaborated, saying:
In the narrative, when Peter protests, Jesus has to rebuke him, saying, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me ... he who has bathed needs only to wash his feet but is completely clean." The washing of the disciples' feet is a metaphor for their being cleansed from sin in the blood of Christ.
In the second part, Jesus instructs His disciples, saying, "If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you."
In Johannine theology, the two events are so closely knit together that the foot washing foreshadows the Crucifixion, anticipates it and interprets it. John is telling us the foot washing is both an explanation of Jesus' death and an example of His service.
"Many New Testament commentators view the cleansing as a symbol of baptism, and to invite people of other religions to have their feet washed as part of the Maundy Thursday service is a travesty," a priest from the Bombay archdiocese told Church Militant. "Did Fr. Mascarenhas also ask his pagan guests to come forward for baptism and Holy Communion?"
Faithful Catholics from Mumbai told Church Militant they were scandalized by the interfaith foot washing at the Marol parish. But parishioners from Fr. Mascarenhas' church welcomed the innovation — with one Catholic calling it "a meaningful celebration" and "a benchmark for all of us, across all religions, to be united in brotherhood."
"We are people of God, and communion with God is communion with our fellow beings," said deacon Ivan Fernandes, who served at the Maundy Thursday service.
This was the first time he had witnessed a priest washing the feet of people from different religions, Fernandes added.
Father Mascarenhas did not respond to Church Militant's request for comment.