(“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, says the Lord. Blessed are the undefiled in the way: who walk in the law of the Lord ...”)
For those of us in the western Church, Holy Week is soon to be upon us. As with every year, the Mass of the Lord's Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday (this year on April 17, one week from today), will be highlighted by the Washing of Feet.
Although the traditional number of subjects being twelve is largely a matter of custom, the rubrics are specific that that only males are selected (in Latin, viri selecti, usually translated as "men") to have their feet washed. Since most liturgical functions of the laity are open to both men and women, the significance of this restriction is lost on the general Catholic public. What's more, the exception is difficult to justify or explain simply at the parish level, and even parishes which are otherwise steadfast in devotion to Church teaching and practice, are known to allow women to have their feet washed.
Defenders of the practice, in addition to underscoring the need for fidelity to Church discipline in and of itself, are quick to point out the significance of the apostles' all being men, thus the connection with the institution of the ministerial priesthood is reinforced by only men's feet being washed. While this position appears worthy of merit on the surface, it could be sufficiently challenged. (Keep reading. It will be.)
Last year, the controversy assumed new meaning. The former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, then only recently named His Holiness Pope Francis, had in the past performed this rite with both women and men, usually at various charitable institutions. Last year, he ventured outside Saint Peter's Basilica, to celebrate the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper at the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention facility in Rome, where the feet of both young men and young women were washed.
(We refer to the excellent commentary by canonist Ed Peters on this very subject.)
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Much of the above is generally known. What follows here, is what isn't.
It is important to remember at the offset, that the sanctuary (or presbyterium; that is, the place of presiding) is traditionally limited to men; and in the strictest sense, to those in the clerical state, be it major or minor. Since a typical parish church did not have the benefit of a complement of minor clerics, men and boys of the parish would act as legitimate surrogates. (Some can still remember when a layman would be pressed into service at a Missa Solemnis as a "straw subdeacon.") Again, strictly speaking, and in the official ceremonials, the use of males within the sanctuary remains the norm. It is only by legitimate indulgence in certain parts of the world (including nearly all of North America and much of Europe), that women perform liturgical functions -- reader, acolyte, and so on -- within the sanctuary at all. Even devout Catholics would not be aware of this, let alone that these indults were not instituted all at once, but at one time or another, during the last few decades of official liturgical reform.
Once exceptions were made (beginning with women ushers in 1969, then as lectors, at the celebrant's discretion, in 1971), it was only a matter of time before others would follow, whether at the initiative of the Holy See (as in the case of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, where a female Religious is actually preferred over an unconsecrated male), or an acquiescence to prolonged disobedience. What some defenders of the current directive fail to recognize, is that the connection to the ministerial priesthood was the traditional justification for all liturgical functions being restricted to men. (Strangely, no one has a problem with all-male ushers or pallbearers, even at parishes which use female altar servers.) The only significant exception that has not been made, is a practice that occurs only once a year, on Holy Thursday.
When we consider why disobedience persists, and attempt to challenge those who engage therein, it does not serve us to play loose with the facts. Michael Voris has suggested in the past that the requirement for "men" eliminates even boys. This is patently false, and only reinforces this writer's contention that liturgical matters are not Mr Voris's strong suit. The requirement is simply that they be "male," making no reference to an age requirement. Indeed, the use of twelve altar boys having their feet washed by the parish priest whom they serve has been a staple of this tradition for many years, and all in accordance with liturgical norms, inasmuch as “Custom is the best interpreter of laws.” (Canon 27, CIC)
As to why the current practice of washing only the feet of males officially persists, the reasons vary. One is the perception that a change would be one more reinforcement of "caving in" to those who violate liturgical directives in Catholic worship. This sends the wrong message to those who endeavor to be compliant, whatever the discomfort. The allowance of female altar servers in 1994, which is known to have occurred against the late Pope John Paul II's privately expressed wishes, is a case in point.
There is also a matter of propriety. Depending on the setting, even the age of the priest, it may be considered inappropriate for a man to wash the feet of a woman with whom he is not on sufficiently familiar terms, let alone in public. Again, the sensibilities of those assembled may vary from one region to another, even one parish to another. I know there are people in "civilized" parts of the world, especially in "über-enlightened" North America, where this is hard to believe. Such naysayers should really see more of the world, or at least watch the Discovery Channel. Or they can peruse a recent account of a priest with a ... well, a peculiar challenge.
The imagery of female footwashing is has substantially greater potential for conveying something sexually inappropriate–or (in our fallen world) actually being something sexually inappropriate.
Meanwhile, some parishes apparently feel the need to prove something to everybody, and will substitute the men-only foot washing with a Washing of Hands amidst the entire assembly. This is rather troubling, when you consider that it was Pontius Pilate who ceremoniously washed his hands in the presence of the crowd, to declare his resignation of Our Lord's eventual fate. If symbols are to have any enduring power, their meaning must be inherent, as opposed to being subject to whatever spin their manipulators (in the form of parish liturgy committees) wish to impose on them. Or have we forgotten what happened to the Emperor who listened to his tailor, at the expense of his own good judgment?
This may be why, in the diocese of yours truly, the bishop has directed that, the ritual itself being optional, parishes may choose instead to take up a collection of canned goods for those in need. And yet, one or two of his parishes will openly choose to "go rogue" on this one; yes, even in the
There are some who maintain that the original premise for the footwashing on Holy Thursday is to remind us of the institution of the priesthood. According to Dr Peters, the revival of the practice by Pius XII in his 1955 revision of the Holy Week rites did not serve that purpose in the fist place. Even so, it is best to follow the correct discipline of the Church in this matter. Even in our politically correct day and age, we have not entirely evolved beyond the separation of roles for male and female, and not just for setting preferences in the lifeboat. We are also obliged to set an example for ourselves and others. If I am a pastor who can play fast and loose with how the rules apply to me, how can I expect others to listen to me? Who determines what rules are okay to break or not to break?
This could be a source of confusion even were the offender in question to be the supreme legislator himself, namely the Holy Father, as is noted by his old friend, Father John Zuhlsdorf.
I understand what Francis is doing here. Fine. But in making such a dramatic change, I fear that he runs the risk of making these changes all about him, rather than some other message he wants to convey. The same goes for all the other changes he is making. The papacy isn’t just his own thing to do with what it pleaseth him to do. The changes can become distractions, especially the way the media will handle them.
That being said, there is a provision in old Roman law, inherited by the discipline of Mother Church, which holds thus: “He who gives the law can also dispense from it.” Canonist Peter Vere elaborates:
What the pope did was perfectly licit (lawful). He may have departed from established liturgical rubrics, but rubric in question is mere ecclesiastical law - not a matter of Divine Positive Law or Natural Law. Hence the rubric in question is subject to Pope Francis's authority as the Church's Supreme Pontiff. Within Roman (and Catholic) legal tradition he can either depart from mere ecclesiastical law, dispense from it, or completely change it if he believes there is good reason to do so or if a compelling pastoral reason presents itself.
... which is a prerogative that does not necessarily apply to another bishop, save that of Rome.
The problem here is, that if you don't know all that (and 99 percent of you didn't until now), its significance will be lost on you. It certainly will be when a faithful parish priest has to contend with a cabal of uppity laypeople throwing the Pope's example in his face. Like he doesn't have enough to worry about. The point here is that “charity in all things” is more than simply being nice. It is also a reason for doing good and avoiding evil, which means setting a proper example. And it is that example, which was the inspiration for our Lord washing the feet of his disciples.
It's not too much to ask for one evening of the year, don't you think?
Or don't you???
[The preceding was originally published in the spring of 2005, and is reissued each year to include subsequent developments, for the benefit of those among our readership who either earnestly desire to get a clue on this issue, or insist on going through life without one, or maybe just get a big kick out of accusing a priest or bishop of being "pharisaical." Or something. -- DLA]