Braving death threats to wash women’s feet 

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Fr Bernard Digal (1960-2008)

Published on: 2:31 pm, March 26, 2016 Story By: Ajay Kumar Singh in Matters India

Fr Bernard Digal (1960-2008)

Bhubaneswar: The washing of women’s feet at the Holy Thursday ceremonies has drawn too much media attention in India this year. Pope Francis surprised the world three years ago when he washed the feet of women and people from other religions.

However, washing of women’s feet on Maundy Thursday had begun much earlier in many places.

One such place was Mondasora parish in the Kandhamal district of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese in Odisha state. Kandhamal martyr Fr Bernard Digal, who was the parish priest then, began washing the feet of women in 1996, as a gesture of equality and service. He had come to Mondasora that year as his first assignment as a parish priest. It is one of the first parishes in Kandhamal. He died a martyr during the 2008 anti-Christian violence.

I too had joined the parish that year as my first ministry as a priest after ordination. Hence the change in the Holy Thursday ritual was unique for me too.

The parish had witnessed some internal disturbances because of certain factors. Nearly half the parishioners had stayed away from the church. So Fr Digal and I decided to visit all the families in the parish within two months.

It was possible as the parish was comparatively small with eight mission stations. Within six months, we felt at home in the parish and the people began to flock to the village church as well as the parish church.

With our new zeal for missionary work as well as for service and equality, we would always dream of steering our pastoral ministry to address the community’s concerns and come closer to the people through our presence and thoughts.

Then came the lent season.

We decided to make it special. We banked on the washing of the feet ritual, a symbol of love and service. We deliberated a lot about it and came to the conclusion that no church teaching barred washing of women’s feet. It is true Jesus chose 12 of his apostles for the ritual. But because of the context Jesus could not have done anything but wash 12 ‘men’ apostles. We cannot claim to love and serve the community if we excluded women, half the humanity.

We knew we would face problems from some members from the community. We decided to consult the community leaders and parish council members a month before the Holy Week.

The council members saw reason and gladly accepted our proposal, so also the village prayer leaders. Names of six men and six women were posted on the parish notice board. Everything seemed fine.

Then Maundy Thursday came. We were at the confessionals. We heard lots of noise in front of the church. Some parish members said that they would not allow things that they said were not part of church tradition.

Fr. Digal asked me to explain to the congregation why we proposed women’s inclusion as a sign of love, service and equality. I did try to reason them out. Almost everyone agreed, except for a few, who hardly used to come to the church. They said they would disrupt the service and kill us the priests.

Fortunately, we went ahead as the women of the parish showed the courage and refused to yield to their threats. Only two members did not take part and left the church.

I felt that I should visit the two members who left the service and went to their houses. We did not discuss about the service; but had good tea with their family members. The animosity and anger faded in a couple of hours.

If Fr Digal were to be alive today, he would have been most happy to know that he was much ahead of times.

It is quite reassuring that the Pope is earnestly campaigning not just for women but for actions beyond the religion. Two bishops told me that they have taken personal interest in including women in the Holy Thursday ritual and explained through circulars and meetings the need of such inclusion.

I feel rather surprised that some Churches continue to make an excuse for exclusion. They are unwilling to change citing lack of preparation and, worse still, cultural sensitivity.

They should instead seize the occasion as an opportunity to uphold equality and facilitate the changes rather perpetuate inequality. Equating caste as cultural practice is seen as a crime today. Churches should not perpetuate inequality and injustice under the pretext of maintaining cultural sensitivity.

Some people view caste as a culture and want it to continue. A crime is a crime.

Let us use Pope’s example as an opportunity to bring positive changes in society.

We cannot perpetuate a culture that dehumanizes or denies human dignity and rights.

(Fr Ajay Kumar Singh is a human rights activist of Odisha. He is a native of Kandhamal.)

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