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Catholics Protest Women’s Exclusion from Foot-Washing Ritual

March 28, 1986

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ A bishop’s ban on women at a pre-Easter foot-washing ritual is discrimination because females weren’t the only people absent from the Last Supper when Christ washed the feet of his apostles, protesters said.

″There were no old people at the Last Supper, there were no blacks, there were no handicapped people, there were no Italians. I didn’t see any kids under 12,″ said a middle-aged protester who refused to identify himself.

Bishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua last month told priests throughout the Diocese of Pittsburgh that women could no longer participate in the traditional foot- washing ceremony, a re-enactment of the Last Supper.

″Christ washed the feet of his apostles, who are men,″ the bishop explained in a Feb. 25 memo.

Sister Kathleen O’Malley, 34, one of about 30 demonstrators who gathered outside St. Paul’s Cathedral before Thursday’s 10 a.m. Mass, described the bishop’s order as a ″slap in the face.″

″I think it’s narrow-minded and legalistic and it excludes recognition of the services of the women in the church,″ Sister O’Malley said.

″If our role is to be in the kitchen, we want to preside at the eucharistic meal, too,″ demonstrator Pat Morgan, 36, added. ″If Jesus did anything, he was constantly challenging the institution and saying that all creation is good, including women.″

The protesters, most of them women, took turns washing each others’ hands and feet in plastic bowls, then linked arms and sang hymns.

Some of the demonstrators carried a banner reading, ″One Bread, One Body.″ Others wore pins that said, ″Something stinks and it ain’t feet.″

Most of several hundred worshippers ignored the protesters on their way into the cathedral. A few, however, loudly expressed their disapproval.

″Shame on all of you for walking out on Jesus,″ one man shouted.

Anthony Rimkus, 68, was among the church-goers who stopped to have his hands dipped into the cold water.

″I think the women should be included. They do a lot for the church,″ he said.

The protesters dispersed quietly after the start of the service, where the bishop presided.

Bevilacqua, faced with mounting criticism, apologized earlier this month for the fuss and told priests they could find alternatives to the foot-washing ritual that wouldn’t exclude women.

He also met Monday with the protest organizers and scheduled another session to discuss the role of women in the church. But the bishop, who has authority to interpret such issues within his diocese, refused to reverse his decision.

Other Catholic bishops in the United States allow women to partipate in the ceremony, which the Vatican has said is an option for celebrating Holy Thursday.

The controversy in Pittsburgh prompted many priests, including the Rev. Leo Vanyo, pastor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, to omit the foot-washing ritual. The ceremony was not part of the cathedral’s morning Mass, which focused on the blessing of oils used in baptisms and anointings.

The foot-washing ″is meant to express humility and love. Quite obviously, the symbolic value of this is pretty much obscured in all the conflict and controversy,″ Vanyo, 60, said.

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