Last week, the new head of the Catholic Church broke the Easter tradition by washing the feet of women.
But for many Mumbaiites, the news of Pope Francis washing the feet of women inmates of a juvenile prison brought back memories of a 1994 incident, when a Malad priest had similarly tried to break convention by washing the feet of women house help, but was stopped from doing so by the local bishop.
The priest, Father Hugh Fonseca, who was the parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Malad, died in June 2011.
Dolphy D’souza, former president of The Bombay Catholic Sabha, who was then the chairman of the church’s parish council, said, “It was decided that during the mass on Maundy Thursday, the priest would wash the feet of women house help.”
The ritual is done to commemorate Christ’s washing of the feet of his 12 disciples before their last meal together. Members of the Malad church collected 12 women house help from the area and gathered at the church.
“We reported early, but, Father Fonseca took me aside and told me that the bishop had asked him not to go ahead with the idea. He said that he knew this would happen.”
Apparently, some church members had complained to the Bishop about the plans and Fr. Hugh Fonseca was told that washing the feet of women at the altar was against church laws.
As member of the clergy, Fonseca obeyed the ‘Oath of Obedience’ that every priest swears to and relented.
But he directed lay members of the church, including D’Souza, to wash the feet of the women below the altar, while he cleaned the feet of 12 men who worked as house help at the same time on the altar above.
The bishop has since retired, but father Anthony Charanghat, spokesperson for the archdiocese of the city, who was then the editor of the church newsweekly, confirmed the incident.
The Pope has found a lot of support in India. “When the Pope does this, it will create ripples and there will be debates as people take positions,” said D’Souza.