An Indian priest in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has been washing the feet of marginalized people including women for the last 30 years on Maundy Thursday.
Father A. Anthony Packiam (62), parish priest of Christ the King Church, Melur, under the Archdiocese of Madurai, started the washing the feet of poor people and women in 1989, three years after his priestly ordination.
Traditionally, the washing of the feet of men practiced since time immemorial, commemorating the washing of the feet of the apostles by Jesus during the Last Supper.
In 2013, Pope Francis included women in his celebration of the Holy Thursday rite when he washed the feet of juvenile offenders in Rome.
This year, Father Packiam washed the feet of an elderly widow (85), an old man (80), a mentally challenged girl (10), a dumb man (60), a physically ill woman (60), a physically challenged boy (11), a young widow (30), a visually challenged man (52), a transgender (23), a sanitation worker (60), an orphan girl (7), and a deaf man (60) during the Holy Thursday ritual in his parish on April 14.
“I have included women in the feet-washing rite on Holy Thursday since I became parish priest in 1989,” he said.
He has served the Archdiocese of Madurai for the last 36 years.
Father Packiam finished his theology at St. Paul’s Regional Seminary, Trichy, Tamil Nadu.
When asked why he included women in feet-washing on Maundy Thursday, he said that during his theological studies, some professors who taught Christology (study on Christ) and Prophets inspired him.
“My professors have deeply influenced me and in my pastoral ministry,” the priest said.
Besides, in those days, one of the prevalent trends was “Liberation theology.” “We all were interested in it. We were called into initiative liberation theology in Indian reality,” he recalled.
“My initiatives of including women and the poor people primarily came from the life and ministry of Jesus who had always a concern for the people who are at the periphery,” Father Packiam explained.
The feet-washing event should inspire people to work for vulnerable people’s rights, dignity, and equality in society, he said.
“That is the core of Jesus’ mission and the Church exists to create social consciousness and awareness on prophetic role Jesus showed and lived,” Father Packiam said.
In his earlier appointments as a parish priest, there were people of different castes and classes. They were divided on caste and social status lines.
To bring the people together and foster solidarity and inclusion, he started several pious associations so that they can participate in and organize events and programs for others under the banner of the parish.
Over time, he guided them to have an inclusive mind and openness to each other putting aside all other social differences, but be united in Christ’s name.
Once they were spiritually and pastorally guided, the priest started the unconventional feet-washing rite including women.
In the beginning, he washed the feet of 12 children (both genders) who came from different castes and classes on Maundy Thursday. Gradually, he repeated the practice in all parishes he served.
“The key message of feet-washing is that we serve each other and have great concern for people who are at the periphery. We need to work for their rights, dignity, and equality,” Father Packiam said. - With additional reporting by Anbu Selvam
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