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Eastern churches bar women from washing feet ritual

Keeping it a men-only ceremony in India is about practicalities, says priest

Eastern churches bar women from washing feet ritual

In this 2010 file image, the late Archbishop Marampudi Joji of Hyderabad kisses the feet of a parishioner during a Maundy Thursday service at St. Anthony's Church in Hyderabad, India. (Photo by AFP)

The two Eastern Catholic churches in India have decided not to include women in the washing of the feet ceremony on Maundy Thursday this year, which some Catholics say stands in conflict with papal guidance.

Pope Francis allowed the inclusion of women in the ceremony by changing the previous prescription that said the "feet of 12 men be washed." The changed regulation now asks pastors to "select a small group of the faithful" for the ritual washing.

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

However, Cardinal George Alencherry, the major archbishop of the Eastern Syro-Malabar Church, told media that his church will wash the feet of only 12 men following the age-old liturgical tradition as the Vatican has exempted Eastern churches.

Father Jimmy Poochakkatt, spokesman of the Syro-Malabar Church told ucanews.com that his church, and the smaller Syro-Malakara Church, were exempted because changes are part of the Latin liturgy and Eastern churches are "liturgically different."

He said the churches have sought clarification from the Vatican's Eastern congregation, which oversees the Eastern-rite churches, and it has exempted them because Eastern churches do not follow the Roman rite or Roman Missal.

However, this exclusion of women is a temporary decision, the spokesman said. "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," Father Poochakkatt said.

After discussions with senior bishops, the major archbishop decided to maintain the status quo until the next synod meeting in August, he said.

"I'm sure the synod will take a positive decision on this," Father Poochakkatt said.

Father Kuriakose Thadathil, who overseas liturgical matters in the Syro-Malabar Church, told ucanews.com that Maundy Thursday's liturgy is essentially different and that only bishops lead the ceremony.

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"There are 14 bishops in the church and there will only be 14 washing of feet ceremonies," said Father Thadathil.

"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," he said.

The priest said the exclusion women from the liturgy has never been seen as gender discrimination. "It is a nonissue" in his church, explained the priest.


Missed opportunity

The Syro-Malabar Church "has missed a great opportunity to demonstrate the adherence to Christ and his teaching through a meaningful gesture of inclusiveness," said the Forum of Religious For Justice and Peace, based in Hyderabad in a letter to Cardinal Alencherry.

Father Jacob Peenikaparambil, the forum's national convener told ucanews.com, the argument that the synod is the body to decide on liturgical issues is being used as an excuse.

"They could have discussed and implemented such changes even before Pope Francis changed the rules," because his action to this direction came long ago, said the priest.

The Eastern churches have to respect their nuns and women more than it does now, said Father Paul Thelakat from the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

Father Thelakat expressed hope that the Eastern churches are not saying that papal teachings are not applicable to them but are seeking more time to implement what Pope Francis is saying to all Catholics.

"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," said Father Thelakat.

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