Michael Kelly SJ. Washing feet, culture and religion.

Mar 26, 2016

The decision by parts of the Catholic Church in India to differ with Pope Francis’ decision to allow women to have their feet washed in the ceremony on Holy Thursday is puzzling to say the least.

Their reason given is simple. The inclusion of women in a ceremony where a man (the celebrant) washes the feet of a woman as one of the 12 people who participate in the re-enactment of Jesus actions on the first Holy Thursday would offend against “cultural sensitivities.”

Do these church leaders appreciate that this was just the point Jesus was making? He was precisely directing his action on a feature of behavior that offended the sensitivities of the people he was with.

Have they read the story of the Last Supper where the exact point that Jesus is making is that Christian leadership is the complete inversion of cultural practices in his time? Jesus found the “cultural sensitivities” offensive.

Peter is upset that Jesus should seek to upturn “the right order.” And Jesus says to Peter in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t understand the very message Jesus had been spending the whole time with him and the other disciples explaining.

Being a follower of Jesus is not about status, hierarchy, power, distinction of race or caste, or just about anything else as the culture of Jesus’ time told everyone was important. It’s about service and service to all, especially the lowliest and the marginal.

To invoke “cultural sensitivity” is really saying, “we’re special in India and if you really want the Gospel to live among us, then you have to respect our customs and practices.”

That of course was the clarion call of Vatican II and issued in endless studies and experiments in what went by the awkward word “inculturation,” meaning the adaptation of church’s ceremonies and liturgical celebrations, its catechesis, self-understanding and the lifestyle of its officials to local customs and practices.

That theme hasn’t been very visible as a topic across Asia in the last 35 years. Centralism in decision making and administration, the concentration of power in the hands of male clerics and the Romanization of the church in style, clothing and sacramental practice has had all the emphasis.

And there’s a point to this. Putting some boundaries around inculturation is needed because it can become the accommodation of the church’s life, teaching and practice to whatever the prevailing and popular emphasis in a specific place is at a particular time.

But that cuts both ways of course. The Gospel can be domesticated and its edge completely blunted by the way in which Catholics take on the colors and behaviors of local non-Christian cultures. National churches in Southeast Asia take on the clericalism of Buddhism. Churches in East Asia adopt the hierarchies of importance that structure Confucian societies.


And in South Asia, the person and message of Jesus gets submerged in the practices and beliefs that owe more to the Hindu caste system than the freedom that Christian faith brings.

As a Westerner living in Asia but seeing a lot of many regions, it’s a source of endless fascination to me just what Asian political and church leaders do to their own people that the loathed colonizers — including those in colonial churches — were justly condemned.

Even today, some leaders mindlessly impose military and economic structures that have their origins in Europe. Marxism in China and Vietnam are just a few examples.

Some countries are burdened with religiously authorized political regimes that have their origins in the Middle East. Malaysia and Pakistan, for example. And some countries endure military dictatorships that would make the Soviets blush — North Korea now and Myanmar until recently, for example.

Sometimes until the mid-20th century, colonially authorized missionaries to places like China and India imposed their own cultures on locals and presumed that the same people were inferior unless they fully embraced and completely accommodated the “superior” European version.

One of the worst instances of this was effected by my own religious order in Thailand in the 17th century, a time about which Jesuits today are justly proud for the achievements of their forbears — Matteo Ricci in China and Roberto de Nobili in India.

Not so in Thailand. The first Jesuits came to what was then called Siam as agents of the French King Louis XIV, with one purpose: to be agents of the king of France, convert the local monarch and absorb the kingdom into the French colonial matrix.

No respect for locals by these early Jesuits at the court in Ayyuthaya, the capital of Siam. They had so absorbed the “superior” culture of France and considered themselves to be part of a superior type of Catholicism that they managed to distance themselves from the rest of the community, including other Catholic missionaries.

That’s how culture can overwhelm the church and its message. And as often with the church, she herself becomes submerged in forms and titles, structures and behaviors that have been left behind by everyone else in the world — a monarchical leadership, the exclusion of women from positions of leadership and a blindness to the context where the Gospel is neutralized by the way the faith is lived.

The only message our contemporaries pick up is how presumptuous and ultimately irrelevant our faith is to their lives. It’s just another ideology and another political structure.

There’s only one antidote to that condition: the person and message of Jesus as conveyed to us in the Gospel. From that vantage point, it’s very clear that a lot of what we are doing today — from bolstering hierarchies to excluding women even from the supreme celebration of the church as a community of service — has us way out of kilter.

Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand. This article was first published in Global Pulse on 25 March, 2016.


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