What Pope Francis Did Next…

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.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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23 Responses to What Pope Francis Did Next…

  1. Kate Edwards says:

    While I think you are right about what Pope Francis is trying to convey with this gesture, I don’t think you are correct in suggesting that the foot washing (mandatum) is not liturgical.

    Liturgy cannot simply be reduced to the sacraments – that would after all eliminate the Liturgy of the Hours from the Liturgy! Rather the liturgy encompasses the sacraments, but goes beyond the matter and form of them.

    In fact the context of the liturgy places the sacraments and sacramentals such as the foot washing into a particular theological context. And the theological context in this case is the institution of the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood. Maundy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper, in other words, is not just about the service all Christians owe each other, or that priests and bishops owe to their flocks or even those they seek to convert.

    The liturgy and traditions of Holy Week are ancient indeed, and to attempt to recast them in this way really is an assault on the idea that traditions are to be guarded not reinvented to suit ourselves.

    So while I can see what I think Pope Francis is trying to get at in terms of problems in the contemporary Church, and agree with the message, I really do think the hand wringing is justified in this case. How, after all, can one demand obedience to any of the laws of the Church, liturgical or otherwise, if the Pope sets a bad example?

    • Schütz says:

      I did not say it was “not liturgical” – I said it wasn’t of the essence of the church’s liturgy.

      And I am not all that certain about the history of the foot washing – how ancient is it, and how was it interpreted from the beginning? Is the sacerdotal interpretation of the rite original to the rite itself? After all the antiphon which is sung with the rite are about the new covenant to “love one another as I have loved you” and “Ubi caritas” – seems to emphasize the act as signifying charity above all.

    • Schütz says:

      Reading all the rather nasty comments on the Rorate Coeli post that Tony linked to (I know now what you mean, Josh), I did find this link to an article in the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia. As I suspected, the foot washing has a rather colourful history, with all sorts of origins and meanings and usages.

      Another topic much discussed on the Rorate site was the fact that Pope Francis did not celebrate a public Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper. I think it should be said that he has not yet taken possession of his Cathedral, and so could not yet celebrate the mass in St John Lateran as usual. So in a sense he had a “free night” in his diary, and chose to use it this way. I can’t see that he intends to make it a regular habit.

      • Kate Edwards says:

        1. I really don’t think that the one or two sentences required to effect the sacraments can be considered the’essence’ of the liturgy. This kind of reductionism is how we ended up with liturgical minimalism in the first place.
        2. The Catholic Encyclopedia article does not, I think, provide a very adequate history of the mandatum in the context of Maundy Thursday. It is true that it plays a role in other liturgical contexts (such as religious profession), but in the context of St John’s Gospel on this particular night, it has a particular meaning. One key point to note is that it wasn’t actually part of parish ceremonies at all for many centuries until Pius XII’s changes to Holy Week in 1955.
        3. Not having taken possession of the Lateran doesn’t mean the pope couldn’t have held mass in one of the other basilicas such as St Peter’s! The first night of the Triduum, the most holy part of the Churches year can surely never be described as a ‘free night in the diary’ for any priest, let alone a bishop, and especially not for the one who presides in charity!

        • Schütz says:

          I never said anything like what you say in (1) above, Kate. My simple point is that the foot washing is not an essential part of the Church’s liturgy, nor is it a sacrament, and therefore it is open to reform. If only our hearts could he reformed as asily!

  2. Tony says:

    The argument you suggest has ‘been bubbling’ away for years, David, is not something I’ve been aware of. I’ve never known a ‘men only’ ceremony in our parish and I’ve been there for 20+ years. I’m not aware of any controversy in the dio either.

    As an aside, I dare say something of a ‘storm’ may gather if, according to The Catholic Herald, this becomes more of a feature of the ceremonies he presides at:

    A group of young people who volunteer at the prison, as well as a local charismatic group, provided the music, playing acoustic guitar and leading the singing.

    • Joshua says:

      The music provided, given the circumstances and the backgrounds of the singers, sounds appropriate. It would have been silly to bring along the Sistine Chapel choir, even though they have improved (ten years ago, their presence would have only inflicted further suffering on the inmates of the prison).

      My own parish priest washed the feet of various men; I heard a relative of mine complain rather pointedly about this later on. I feel for priests: no one wants to do the wrong thing, but in this case he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. It is terrible how what is meant to manifest love has turned into an occasion of hate: for this reason – Traddie though I am – I feel that it would be best if the Pope, given his own decision, changes the word viri in the rubric to homines, and then no one will feel guilty.

  3. You make some good points Joshua. You too, Kate.

    I agree with you, David, that’s the Pope’s gesture was both predictable and meaningful. It’s a great gesture. I just wish he didn’t do it this way.

    My experience is the same as Tony’s. The only time I have seen the foot washing ritual performed according to the rubrics is at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. Everywhere else, women have participated. Nonetheless, I was aware of the “bubbling issue” because I was aware of the rubrics.

    Rubrics are maligned, but rubrics are important, because the liturgy is important. I always prefer it when celebrants are faithful to the liturgical texts: “say the black and do the red.” The liturgy is public not private; the domain of all the Church, not the celebrant at hand.

    By ignoring the rubrics, Pope Francis has just made it harder for every other celebrant who cops grief for observing the rubrics. That’s unfortunate. Better for the pope to have changed the rubrics than ignore them.

    Incidentally David, you’ve mistyped Edward Peters’ prefix. Dr, not Fr. He’s a highly esteemed lay canonist. It’s a shame to clericalise him!

    • Schütz says:

      Thanks for the correction – I did not know that he shared my estate rathe than yours.

      If anyone has the authority to change the rubrics, it would be the pope. But any diocesan ordinary could grant an indult to allow the washing of the feet of women as well as men. I guess he hasn’t had a chance yet to do this officially. i wonder if he will. I think he was doing the same thing in his diocese – of course he had authority then as now to grant an insult for his diocese.

      • jules says:

        I am a bit hesitant to say this here because I almost feel like it is ‘gossip’. So what I will do is say what I need to say without giving the person away. Last night at the Holy Thursday Mass a retired Bishop was also presiding alongside the new parish priest . After the washing of the feet [which always includes women] the whole congregation was invited up to wash each others hands. There were bowls of water and towels set up .
        The symbolic gesture was one of service to one another. Some people did not participate and remained seated. The bishop did say he was encouraged with what Pope Francis intended to do at the prison and in his mind Pope Francis was leaving ‘all that behind'[meaning the tradition that previous Popes had continued]. I had missed feelings about it and still do.

  4. Tony says:

    In an earlier post I said:

    PS: Imagine how much more powerful an image like this one will be to the world?

    Well, now we have it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaGMM2Jn6cM.

    And its power has had an impact thousands of kilometres away with these very moving letters: Letters from Prison.

    It’s hard for me to hear what he said and see what he did, then see the kind of reaction it engendered from those, perhaps representing the ‘prodigal son’ rather than the ‘older son’, and not conclude that Francis has his priorities right.

    Others are getting more and more upset though: For the record: “A girl among the 12 inmates whose feet will be washed by the Pope.

    Finally, getting back to that earlier discussion and a point I confess I still don’t really understand, I assume that you think Francis is not ‘using real people for the sake of an “image”’, David?

  5. Those letters from prison make moving reading Tony. A nice antidote to the “older brother” stuff. Thanks for the link.

  6. Sharon says:

    The foot washing is performed according to the rubrics at St Mary’s West Melbourne.

  7. Joshua says:

    I guess the danger with having all the focus thrown on the foot-washing (and hand-washing, apparently! that does strike me as particularly daft!) is that it may turn away the focus from the more transcendental mysteries – the institution of the Eucharist, and the priesthood – and “dumb it all down” to a bourgeois “let’s-be-nice-to-everybody” display of self-satisfied mediocrity.

    We are very quick in this age to turn religion into doing good, dropping out that uncomfortable God stuff – as Pope Francis trenchantly put it, reducing the Church to yet another compassionate NGO.

  8. Peregrinus says:


    Couple of thoughts.

    1. The relevant canonical provision assumes that the people whose feet are washed will be viri, without explicitly and directly requiring that they should be. You can make an argument – if you care to – that if the legislator had intended that onlyviri could have their feet washed, he would have said as much. In fact all he does is to predict or assume that those who are chosen will be [i]viri[/i], which is not quite the same as requiring that they must be.

    2. Viri means men; a woman is not vir, but neither is a boy. As this was a young offenders’ prison, it’s likely that most or all of those who had their feet washed were not viri. And the same is true when the ceremony is conducted in, e.g., boys’ schools. This doesn’t seem to attract the same degree of concern from the liturgical sticklers.

    3. Joshua suggests that too much focus on the footwashing “may turn away the focus from the more transcendental mysteries – the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood”. I think those who are most concerned about this, though, would see the two issues as intimately linked.

    4. Since Trent, it’s been a popular and weighty theological opinion that the Eucharist and the priesthood were both instituted at the last supper. I’m not sure, though, that this is defined de fide, and there are those who find this view problematic. If the eucharist is a memorial of the sacrifice of Christ, how can the last supper have been a memorial of a sacrifice which had not yet occurred? By the same token, how can you have a mass when there has been no resurrection? And again, a mass requires the Holy Spirit; that’s why we have the epiclesis. But John associates the coming of the Holy Spirit with the death and resurrection of Jesus; Luke locates it firmly at Pentecost. On either view, you can’t have a mass at the last supper.

    5. In short, a mass includes the last supper, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit. It is a memorial and re-presentation of all those, not just of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. The mass we take part in as believers re-presents us to all of the events that took place from Last Supper to Sending of the Spirit. None of those moments are lost in the process. So that last meal was something very important. But it was not, in itself, a mass.

    6. On this view, we shouldn’t try locate the institution of a sacrament at a precise instant. All sacrament is a real encounter with the risen Jesus. Encounters are not instantaneous events; they are relationships. The eucharist is given to us in [i]all[/i] of the events which it memorialises and re-presents, but not in any one of them.

    7. Much the same can be said about the institution of the priesthood. The “keys of the kingdom” dialogue between Jesus and Peter, for example, occurs before any of the events just mentioned. Nobody doubts that it informs our understanding of priestly ministry. Yet it makes no sense to think of Peter or the apostles as being priests at that time, if presiding over the eucharist is of the essence of priesthood, which is another thing we don’t doubt. So, again, the institution of the priesthood seems to be best understood as a process that unfolded over time in the course of the relationship between Jesus and the twelve, not as a single event. In which case not everything that happens at the last supper – e.g. footwashing – is necessarily about ministerial priesthood.

    8. Maybe I’m adding two and two together to make about a hundred and fifty, but it seems to me that the view that (a) the priesthood was instituted at a particular moment, and (b) that moment was the last supper [i]might[/i] be held by people who are of the view that setting up a distinct ministerial priesthood was at the heart of what Jesus came to do, and therefore it is fittingly located at the Easter events, the climax of his earthly mission. And this is a view which [i]might[/i] be favoured by those who assert the importance and centrality and authority of the priesthood; by those who emphasis the hierarchical and clerical character of the church. And the converse view of the instution of the priesthood might be held by those who would de-emphasise hierarchy and clericalism, and instead stress the priesthood of all believers.

    9. Or, in other words, this is a bit political, in the ecclesiastical sense of “political”.

  9. Stephen K says:

    Dear Peregrinus, I hope my compliments don’t embarrass you but by golly you’re lucid, and persuasive!

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