Letter: Including Women and Girls in the Washing of Feet on Maundy Thursday.

31 March 2017

To,

Cardinal Oswald Gracias,
President, Conference of Catholic Bishops of India,

Cardinal George Alencherry,
President Syro-Malabar Bishops’ Synod (SMBS)

Baselios Cardinal Cleemis Catholicos
President, Holy Episcopal Synod - Syro-Malankara Church

Your Eminences,

Re: Including Women and Girls in the Washing of Feet on Maundy Thursday.

The Indian Christian Women’s Movement (ICWM) together with other organizations/individuals who are co-signatories of this letter come to you with an earnest appeal which has arisen out of our collective endeavour to discern the will of God for the Catholic Church in India in order that we may keep growing as an inclusive community of equal disciples in the Lord.

One of the most encouraging signs in the Church in recent times of such inclusiveness and equality has been the initiative of Pope Francis to include all people of God in the ceremony of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. Holy Thursday falls on 13 April this year and we come to you with his humble and urgent appeal so that the example set by Pope Francis may become a reality in every parish in India this year.

For this to happen, the initiative needs to come from you, dear bishop in the form of a clear instruction/guideline to be given to the parish priests in your communication to them, preferably on the occasion of the Chrism Mass so that they may be inspired to catechise the laity and implement this practice in their parishes.

We would like to put on record our appreciation for the dioceses and parishes which have already implemented this practice last year (2016). It is our prayer that this year more dioceses and parishes may take this cue and implement this single-most inclusive liturgical practice pioneered by Pope Francis.

The Decree on Holy Thursday’s Foot Washing Ceremony dated 06 January 2016 made public the significant change introduced by Holy Father Francis. The relevant portion of the text reads thus:

In order that the full meaning of this rite might be expressed to those who participate it seemed good to the Supreme Pontiff Pope Francis to vary the norm which is found in the rubrics of the Missale Romanum (p. 300 n. 11):«The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers…», which therefore must be changed as follows:«Those who are chosen from amongst the people of God are led by the ministers…»(and consequently in the Caeremoniali Episcoporum n. 301 and n. 299b: «seats for those chosen»), so that pastors may select a small group of the faithful to represent the variety and the unity of each part of the people of God. Such small groups can be made up of men and women, and it is appropriate that they consist of people young and old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated men and women and laity [retrieved from https://zenit.org/articles/decree-on-holy-thursdays-foot-washing-ceremony/ on 31/03/2017]

We are of the opinion that the directives given by Holy Father as well as the example that he himself has set (by including representatives from all walks of life, both men and women in the ceremony of washing of the feet during Holy Thursday since the year 2013) are powerful interventions for making the Church visibly and symbolically more inclusive. We as women and men committed to the vision of equal discipleship in the Church are inspired under the prompting of

the Divine Spirit in our collective and personal discernment to present before you, and other leaders of the Church in India our humble request that clear instructions may be issued to all the parish priests and pastors in the respective dioceses exhorting them to implement the exemplary practice of Pope Francis in the spirit of the above-mentioned directive from the Holy See.

We believe that such a symbolic representation of inclusion liturgically celebrated in parishes and mass centres across India will have a healing effect especially in the light of the recent instances of the scandal of sexual abuse in the Church.

We have noted with a sense of concern a news item that appeared in the national press on 29 March

2017 regarding the decision of the Syro Malabar Church regarding this issue. We understand that the modification suggested by Pope Francis is applicable to the provisions in the Roman Missal and hence not applicable to the non-Latin Churches. A report in The Hindu Newspaper quoted George Cardinal Alenchery as giving a clear instruction to the Syro Malabar Church to the effect that in the Eastern tradition the washing of the feet was reserved for men and boys and therefore the whole of Syro Malabar Church will continue the practice of including only men and boys for the ceremony of washing the feet. [http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/syro-malabar-church-sticks-to-tradition/article17738865.ece retried on 31/03/2017]

We would like to request the Syro Malabar Synod of Bishops to revisit this directive and look afresh at the possibility of emulating the esteemed example shown by Pope Francis for the whole universal Church and include all members of the people of God in the ceremony of washing the feet on Holy Thursday.

Similarly, we appeal to the Synod of the Syro Malankara Church to kindly issue clear directives to the pastors and parish priests to include all people of God in the ceremony of the washing of the feet of Holy Thursday, so that in words and spirit we celebrate the all inclusive love of Christ as demonstrated by our Spiritual leader Pope Francis.

Yours in Christ Jesus,

Noella D’Souza, MCJ
Convenor, ICWM
Streevani, Pune.

Indian Women Theologians Forum, Montfort Social Institute, Hyderabad Forum of Religious for Justice & Peace Satyashodak, Mumbai,
Dr. M.T. Joseph SVD