HONG KONG (UCAN): When Pope Francis washed the feet of a Muslim and a woman on Holy Thursday in 2014, a canonical polemic, at times vitriolic, with accusations from some quarters that he had broken the law, broke out.
While sager heads withheld a smile, on January 20 this year they were afforded a grin when the pope promulgated that from now on it is not only men and boys who may have their feet washed, but any member of the people of God.
But the blocks are not always confined to legalities, as Father Thomas Liang Weiguo discovered when he found himself washing the feet of women in The Philippines a couple of years ago—a first for him.
Although not particularly daunted by the experience, the priest from Shaanxi said recently, “But it is another thing in China. I asked my parishioners last week, but most of the women could not accept it, especially the younger ones.”
In eastern Jiangsu, where the Catholic population is estimated at 220,000, Father James Gao said he has no intention of changing.
He said that in his 60 per cent female parish most people are rather conservative. “They would feel uneasy taking off their shoes and having their feet washed by a man other than her husband or son in public,” he said.
“After all, this is different from shaking hands… there would be gossiping afterwards,” he pointed out. “Physical contact between men and women remains sensitive. It takes time to accept and we need to consider the feelings among different age groups, especially the elderly people.”
However, some priests plan on making a bold attempt.
Father Zhao Hongchun, from Harbin in Heilongjiang, intends to pick two or three women to participate in the ceremony this year to help people adapt to the development of the Church rite.
“The service and salvation of Jesus is for all. Women of course are included. It is a natural expression of pastoral theology,” Father Hongchun, the apostolic administrator of the unofficial Church community in Harbin, said.
“We should be more open to engaging women to let them contribute their passion, dedication, creativity and sense of mission to the Church,” he said.
Bishop John Wang Ruowang, from Tianshui in northern Gansu, said that he had considered including women in the past. “But this was not allowed then and I dared not break the Church rule,” he admitted.
Maria Wang, from Tianshui, said she would probably put up her hand if Bishop Wang is looking for participants.
“Every year when I saw the men participate in the foot-washing rite, I wondered in my mind why women were excluded. I longed to be one of them to receive this grace,” she explained.
Sister Teresa Zhang, from northern Hebei, agreed, saying, “I don’t think there is any embarrassment, because the foot-washing takes place in a holy rite. I feel the priest is representing Jesus coming into my life.”
Sri Lanka has taken a different approach and recommended that Pope Francis’ suggestion be followed. In Kandy, Bishop Vianney Fernando is instructing his priests to introduce what he called a positive change.
As in many other countries in the world, The Philippines has been including women in the rite for many years. This year, the archbishop of Manila, Luis Cardinal Tagle, is using the occasion to highlight service through loyal labour.
In addition to men and women from a variety of walks of life, he will wash the feet of Andres Bautista, the chairperson of the Commission on Elections, to emphasise the importance of conducting a clean election for the new president of the country on May 9.
Most canon lawyers argue that it was practice, not canon law that saw women excluded from the rite of washing feet.