Chennai: Catholic priests in Chennai, southern India, have visited jails for nearly a decade to wash the feet of prisoners. They began doing this much before Pope Francis hit international headline four years ago with his unique pastoral style of washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday.
The ritual commemorates Jesus washing his disciples’ feet during the Last Supper, a day before he was crucified.
Father G J Antonysamy, who heads the Prison Ministry of India’s unit in the Archdiocese of Madras Mylapore, says the ritual in jails highlights Christ’s compassion for all. The prisoners “may feel rejected and dejected but this act of having their feet washed by a priest is just our way of saying God is still by their side,” the priest told The Times of India.
The feet-washing is symbolic of humility , love, forgiveness and spiritual cleansing.
On Maundy Thursday, priests take turns to visit the federal and district jails in Tamil Nadu.
They visit the jail wings housing convicts and those in remand, while the nuns conduct the ritual in the women’s prison. “We included the women’s prison because the pope had said that feet washing should not just be restricted to men, but must include women as well,” says Jesu Raja, a volunteer with the prison ministry since 1993.
Raja said at the ritual, prisoners and those witnesses shed tears not blood.
“No words need to be spoken. The very act says everything. It is touching to see the prisoners having their feet washed and by the end of the ceremony, it almost feels like they are having a change of heart,” Raja claimed. Most prisoners who join the ritual are Christians.
The superintendents at the jail consider it a wonderful gesture. “The priests have been coming here every year, and performing this ritual on Maundy Thursday morning. It is a good thought,” a prison staff said.
The Vatican announced that on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis will wash the feet of inmates at the Paliano prison in Italy, known for housing `collaborators of justice’ against the mafia. In the past, Pope Francis had washed the feet of women, Muslims, and refugees.