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When foot-washing became an act of liberation

For a group of inter-religious women at a care home in India, it was witnessing equality as testified in the Gospels
Women leaders explain the meaning of the Maundy Thursday foot-washing ritual to a group of inter-religious women in a care home for aged women in Kerala, southern India, before washing their feet. (Photo: Kochurani Abraham)

Women leaders explain the meaning of the Maundy Thursday foot-washing ritual to a group of inter-religious women in a care home for aged women in Kerala, southern India, before washing their feet. (Photo: Kochurani Abraham)

Published: April 05, 2024 04:16 AM GMT
Updated: May 02, 2024 06:41 AM GMT

The imagery of Pope Francis washing the feet of 12 women prisoners on Maundy Thursday at the Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome went viral across the globe. The image of the pope in his wheelchair reaching out to the women prisoners in caring tenderness as he washed and kissed their feet — some of them even breaking down as they could not contain their emotions — must have posed an irresistible challenge.

Certainly, this event had an overwhelming impact as it echoed the Gospel imperative: “Do you know what I have done? … If I then, your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet” (Jn. 13:12-14).

For Francis, this Maundy Thursday event is nothing new. Soon after he was elected pope in 2013, Francis conducted this ritual at a juvenile detention center, and among those whose feet he washed were two young women and two Muslim inmates.

Breaking with the tradition of his predecessors who washed the feet of priests during the Holy Thursday liturgical service in Rome, Francis opted to wash the feet of elderly, people with disabilities, and refugees in the years that followed.

From a liberative theological perspective, two features stand out in the papal initiative, first the aspect of ‘how’ it is held and secondly ‘where’ it is held.

It is interesting to note that following the pope’s request, the Vatican issued a decree in 2016, specifying that the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual can include “all members of the people of God.”

"Liberation becomes a non-issue where Church leaders are fixated on the discriminatory rubrics of tradition"

Consequently, the rubrics of the Roman Missal, which mentioned only men as participants in the foot-washing ritual were changed to make it inclusive. However, in the Indian setting, since the nation’s Episcopal Conference left its implementation optional, the inclusion of women became dependent on the benevolence of bishops and priests.

While a few of the Latin rite bishops and priests have included women in the subsequent years, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara rite Churches took a firm stand against it on the grounds that the papal decree was against the liturgical traditions followed by the Eastern Churches.

It is understandable that liberation becomes a non-issue where Church leaders are fixated on the discriminatory rubrics of tradition. Against this backdrop, the foot-washing ritual of 12 women by the pope inside a prison becomes markedly significant.

Firstly, the women chosen by the pope for the foot-washing ceremony got to represent the 12 disciples of Christ. This could be seen as an inconsequential gesture since women still remain passive recipients of male-mediated grace.

All the same, it signals the liberative politics of inclusion, which was central to Jesus’ way of realizing the kinship vision of God’s reign on earth. Further, this event has an added value when set against Francis’ attempt to realize the vision of synodality as the way of being Church.

Perhaps these are signs that could pave the way for major breakthroughs in reframing the identity and mission of the Church in today’s world.

A second aspect that I would like to underline about the foot-washing at Rebibbia is the significance of performing this ritual in a secular space.

Francis being the first pope to hold the foot-washing ceremony outside church services, explained the rationale behind this gesture in a Maundy Thursday homily when he said: "We need to go out … to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed and blindness that longs for sight” (The Guardian, 28 March 2013).

"We see a revolutionary symbol that can help overthrow the oppressive hierarchies that persist in our societies" 

The words of Nadia Fontana, the prison director of Rebibbia when she told the pope that he had brought the institution "a ray of sunlight" (Reuters, March 29, 2024), bear witness to the liberative potential of holding the foot-washing ritual in spaces that have become the ‘margins’ to the centers of respectability.

Drawing inspiration from Pope Francis’ initiative and in response to the Gospel command of following Jesus in servant leadership, the Kerala unit of the Indian Christian Women’s Movement (ICWM) — an autonomous collective of women from different churches — has conducted foot-washing ritual in public spaces since 2017.

On March 27, this ritual was celebrated at Snehakkoodu (nest of love), an inter-religious center for very marginalized elderly women and men in Kottayam, Kerala.

For us the representatives of ICWM Kerala who washed and kissed the feet of the women residents of Snehakkoodu, it was a liberative experience of witnessing equality as testified in the Gospels. In the foot washing as modeled by Jesus, we see a revolutionary symbol that can help overthrow the oppressive hierarchies that persist in our societies, particularly in the name of class, caste, gender, and religion.

In the context of growing communal prejudices and othering that tend to fan up flames of mistrust among people of different faiths in our country today, we find that foot-washing in an inter-religious setting could foster harmony.

Besides, it becomes a very apt space for creating greater awareness about justice, equality, freedom, and brotherhood/sisterhood as enshrined in the preamble of the constitution of our country, these being fundamental to building the unity and integrity of our nation.

In addition, foot-washing in a public space like Snehakkoodu facilitates going beyond mere inclusion of women in this ritual to representing Jesus who took a bold stand against power structures that are repressive and discriminatory. Like Jesus who subverted the established social hierarchies of his time and overturned the tyrannical structures of power, we are led to do likewise for realizing the kinship politics of the Gospels.

We see that to realize the liberative significance of foot-washing as modeled by Jesus, it is crucial that we go beyond commemorating it as a mere Maundy Thursday ritual in the Church. Only by becoming inclusive, egalitarian, and subversive like Jesus can we respond to the challenge posed by the question “Do you know what I have done? (Jn 13: 12).

In the present socio-political climate of our country, following this liberative politics of the Gospel becomes imperative for building a new social order founded on justice, equality, and respect for all.

*Kochurani Abraham is a feminist theologian based in Kerala, India. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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