Yesterday I debated whether I should post two predictions that had formed fairly definitely in my mind:
1) That, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at Casal del Marmo Juvenile Detention Centre, Pope Francis would wash the feet not only of boys but also of girls.
2) That this would be followed by an intense about of handwringing throughout the Catholic blogosphere.
I decided not to publish these prognostications on the grounds of there being no point to stirring up a sh*tstorm if it was unnecessary to do so. But hey, there it is. Last night he went and did it:
Pope Francis washed the feet of 10 young men and two young women – two of whom were Muslims – during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Casal del Marmo young offenders’ institute in Rome this evening.
Now, I can just hear some of my non-Catholic readers saying “So what? What’s the problem?” Well, this is one of those in-house Catholic arguments that has been bubbling along merrily ever since the publication of the revised holy week ceremonies in the 1970’s.
You see, one thing that the new ceremonial did not revise was the rubric which stated that, if the foot washing were to be done (and note, it is optional – more on that in a moment), “Viri selecti deducuntur a ministris ad sedilia loco apto parata“, or, as the English Missal has it: “The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place.” “Viri” in Latin means “male human beings” in English. There is no doubt about that.
Why is this significant? Because
a) the foot washing is taken of being symbolic of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles (no argument there on any score – that’s pretty obvious), and
b) because there is a fairly long line of tradition which takes the foot washing ceremony to be connected to Jesus’ “ordination” of the apostles at the Last Supper.
Taken together, and in the context of a fairly lively and divisive debate about whether or not women can be ordained to the priesthood, that made the foot washing ceremony at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper something of a powder keg each year.
So, there are the facts. The rubrics say “viri” (although, you must admit that they use this term somewhat incidentally – the rubrics do not say that those selected MUST be men, it simply observes that those selected ARE men).
Yet, I must admit, that I rather felt on the side of those who thought there was something not quite right about the way the foot washing ceremony panned out each year. It did seem to convey a note of “privilege” on the part of those who were chosen to have their feet washed. “Why did Father choose to wash their feet and not mine?”
If it was about ordination, on the other hand, I rather agree with Dr Ed Peter’s suggestion that it should be shifted to the Chrism Mass and the bishop should wash the feet of his priests. But in the parishes we are not “ordaining” the twelve men whose feet get washed – they are and remain lay men. I think the ordination connection is therefore a little tenuous. But, but, you say, it is symbolic of the twelve disciples. Okay, but among Jesus’ disciples there were women also AND neither the scripture text nor the Missal rubric specify twelve men (as far as I can see).
Two things we must be clear about in relation to the foot washing ceremony: 1) the ceremony is optional, 2) the ceremony IS NOT A SACRAMENT. In other words, it does not belong to the essence of the Church’s liturgical tradition.
The question we should then ask is: “What does the ceremony mean?” And this is a fair question. After all, Jesus himself said to his disciples: “Do you understand what I have done for you?” (John 13:12). And here is the answer Pope Francis gave last night:
This is moving: Jesus who washes the feet of his disciples, Peter did not understand anything and refused but Jesus explained to him.
Jesus, God, has done this and he himself explains to the disciples, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet” I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (Jn. 13, 12-15)
This is the example of the Lord, he is the most important and he washes their feet because among us, he who is greatest should be at the service of others and this is a symbol and a sign.
To wash the feet means ‘I am at your service’ and also us, among us, its not that we have to wash everyone’s feet everyday, but what does this mean? That we should help each other, [to help] one another. There are sometimes where I am a little angry with one, with another, and well, forget it and if they ask you for a favor, do it.
To help each other; this is what Jesus teaches us and this what I [will] do, I do it from the heart because it is my duty, as a priest and as a bishop, to be at your service. It is a duty that comes from my heart, I love it. I love it and I love doing it because the Lord has taught me so, but you must also help each other. Always help each other, the one for the other and in helping each other, we will do good.
And now we will do this ceremony of washing the feet, and we must think. Each one of us must think, ‘Am I really willing to help the other?’ Think only of that and think that this sign is a caress of Jesus, because Jesus came specifically for this: to serve, to help us.”
So, in a word, the ceremony is about service. And if it is about service, rather than ordination, then it really does not work as a symbol if we are selective about those who are eligible to receive this humble act of service.
None of us should be surprised for one moment that Francis, Bishop of Rome, included a couple of women in his group. This was SO predictable, I almost regret not now having predicted it publicly. Here is a man whose middle name is “humble-service” (okay, it’s a hyphenated middle name), and here is the quintessential symbolic act of service, and here are a bunch of kids both male and female – what did you think he was going to do?
The thing is, Pope Francis has basically told us that the core meaning of this (optional, non-sacramental) rite is SERVICE. And if that is the core meaning, it probably shouldn’t be obscured with other overtones which cut across that message and suggest that the priest is only there to serve one half of the population.
Does that mean that I think any priest can now do as he likes with that particular “viri” rubric? No, I am not advocating that – not until there is an official change or decree granting licence to include women in the foot washing. It is still there, still “written”, as they say. Before making any changes, priests should wait for the official word from competent authority*. I believe a local bishop would have the right to make such a change to the liturgical norms. And perhaps the Bishop of Rome is suggesting to his brother bishops that this would be a good change to make, so that the symbolic act actually conveys what it means, and so that in the future this beautiful ceremony can be surrounded by a little less angst and argy-bargy.
* Competent authority was defined by the Second Vatican Council, in Sacrosanctum Concilium paragraph 22:
22. 1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.
3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.