Monday, April 1, 2013

Hand-wringing over the foot-washing

On to the foot-washing thing: and this post is NOT an April Fool's Day prank, just so everybody's all clear on that. :)

Since I don't usually blog during the Triduum, I missed a lot of the controversy which occurred when Pope Francis washed the feet of two female prisoners on Holy Thursday.  As everybody knows, the Holy Thursday Mandatum, or the ceremonial washing of men's feet, has been a part of Holy Thursday Mass since the ancient and venerable year of...1955...

...wait, what?

Wikipedia has its faults, but there doesn't appear to be anything at all inaccurate about this:
In Roman Catholic Church, the ritual washing of feet is now associated with the Mass of the Lord's Supper, which celebrates in a special way the Last Supper of Jesus, before which he washed the feet of his twelve apostles.

Evidence for the practice on this day goes back at least to the latter half of the twelfth century, when "the pope washed the feet of twelve sub-deacons after his Mass and of thirteen poor men after his dinner."[3]

From 1570 to 1955, the Roman Missal printed, after the text of the Holy Thursday Mass, a rite of washing of feet unconnected with the Mass. The 1955 revision by Pope Pius XII inserted it into the Mass. Since then, the rite is celebrated after the homily that follows the reading of the gospel account of how Jesus washed the feet of his twelve apostles (John 13:1–15). [All links and citations in the original--E.M.]

Hmmm.  Okay, then.  But clearly this custom has always been all about the ordination of the Apostles as the Church's first priests, right?

Well, not exactly.  According to blogger Jennifer Miller, who cites a book titled The Easter Book by Father Francis Weiser, the Mandatum used to include not only religious superiors, bishops, priests, etc. washing the feet of some of their subordinates, but also Christian kings, queens, emperors, and other nobility who would wash the feet of some of their poor subjects (and queens, of course, would wash the feet of poor women when they would practice this custom).

Okay, okay.  But eventually the Church cracked down, formalized the ritual, and made sure everybody knew it was all about the priesthood, yes?

Well, no:
In the pre-1955 ritual, the Washing of the Feet, commonly known as the “Mandatum”, from the first word of the first antiphon sung during the washing, is done as a separate service from the Mass. After the stripping of the Altar is complete, and generally after a break of some hours, the clergy and servers go in procession to a place set aside for the Mandatum. (The service was often done immediately after Vespers, but it was not obligatory for the Vespers to precede.) If there is no other place where the Mandatum may be conveniently done, it may be done before the main altar of the church, but this is not the ideal practice.

The Gospel of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is repeated, with all of the ceremonies normally observed at a Solemn Mass. After this, the priest washes the feet of 12 men, wearing an apron as Our Lord Himself did at the Last Supper. As he comes before each of the twelve, the priests genuflects before him, in imitation of our Lord’s humility. The subdeacon kneels to hold up the foot of each of the 12 men as the priest washes it, and the deacon proffers a towel with which to dry it, after which the priest kisses it.

Sigh.  Okay, then, but at least they were still men getting their feet washed, even if it was happening outside of Mass, right?  And then the pope in 1955 made absolutely sure everybody knew that there were important theological reasons for men and only men to get their feet washed in church on Holy Thursday, right?

Again, not exactly:
Although the practice had fallen into disuse for a long time in parish celebrations, it was restored in 1955 by Pope Pius XII as a part of the general reform of Holy Week. At that time the traditional significance of the rite of foot washing was stated by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in the following words: "Where the washing of feet, to show the Lord's commandment about fraternal charity, is performed in a Church according to the rubrics of the restored Ordo of Holy Week, the faithful should be instructed on the profound meaning of this sacred rite and should be taught that it is only proper that they should abound in works of Christian charity on this day."

So, what do we have?

We have an optional part of the Holy Thursday Mass which was added to the Mass in 1955; prior to that the Mandatum took place outside of Mass, and in even earlier ages it included lay rulers washing the feet of their subjects as well as bishops, priests, etc. washing the feet both of other clergy and of lay people.  At least one form of the Mandatum seemed to center around washing the feet of beggars, paupers, or other lowly people, while the other form seemed to center around washing the feet of priests, deacons, or seminarians (some of whom might have received the minor orders); however, from about 1570 on the Mandatum specified 12 men, but said nothing about whether they were to be lay people or clergy, or whether, if lay people, they should be beggars or the poor.

The present instruction in the rubrics specifies men, but the number 12 is not included in the present instructions.  So if the number was specified in previous law, it was dropped at some point--and it would be interesting to learn whether there actually used to be a requirement that 12 men should participate, and, if so, at what point that requirement was changed (especially: did a decline in the number precede the change in the law, or did the change in the law precede the relaxing as to the number required?).

I will grant that people who are interested or confused by what Pope Francis did on Holy Thursday are not necessarily legalists or Pharisees.  Here in the United States, a group of loudmouthed agitators, some of whom, alas, were bishops, pushed to include women in the foot-washing thing under the mistaken impression that the Mandatum was always and everywhere about the priesthood.  Some of them rather sneakily declared that of course the Mandatum wasn't really about the priesthood, but about serving the lowly, and after all women were treated as lowly people by some Catholics in some ages past, so...

...and the joke is on them, really.  Because the Mandatum has always had these two parallel ideas associated with it.  When bishops washed the feet of 12 or 13 beggars after dinner on Holy Thursday they certainly weren't calling the beggars to the priesthood (at least, not right then and there), but reminding the faithful that they, their Lordships and Excellencies the Bishops, who wore fine clothes and were rather high up socially, had the same duty to kneel in the dirt and wash the calloused feet of filthy, ragged paupers that Christ had exhorted and modeled as the duty of all priests to His own Apostles: this is what Christian leaders are to do, what sets them apart from the worldly ideas of power.

So including women in the foot-washing doesn't in the least point to an impossible and silly idea that women should be priests.  All it does is say to the faithful that for right now we all need to remember that being a good Christian means, first and foremost, being willing to serve, even when we are outside of our comfort zones and faced with the lowly or oppressed or those we'd rather not serve.

And including women in this practice has some good precedents: what the Church opens up to lay men, she often opens at some point to lay women.  An example I've used before of this reality is that of the choir: once choirs were all clergy or possible future clergy (including young boys already in the seminary); then they started including lay men; eventually they started including lay women as well.  Perhaps there are those out there who think that all the Church's present problems started when women were allowed to sing at Mass, but I would venture to suggest that opinion is in the minority.  There are other examples of this sort of movement, and at times people have thought that the Church moved too hastily or too incautiously to allow women to do something that males had typically done before--but again, once lay males are allowed to do something, it seems to become less of an argument to say that the aspect of maleness is somehow more significant than the distinction between the clergy and the laity.  To give an example of what I mean, there were plenty of people wringing their hands over Pope Francis' decision to wash the feet of two women because they insisted that the maleness of the participants was necessary so as to point to the priesthood.  The fact that at most parishes men who are ineligible for the priesthood (in the West, anyway) by virtue of being married men are chosen was not seen as a significant drawback to this "pointing to the priesthood" aspect of the Mandatum: after all, some of the Apostles were married, and married men could be ordained someday, so...etc.  But that's why the Church gets to have the final say about those things that should be restricted to lay males only, and those things which lay men or lay women can do.

Now, I realize that what many people are upset with here is that the pope didn't say ahead of time that he was changing the rules, nor has he yet officially changed them.  I would point to the reality, though, that sometimes things mentioned in canon law do change before the law officially changes.  Consider the 1917 Code of Canon Law, number 1262, which read as follows:
1. It is desirable that, consistent with ancient discipline, women be separated from men in church.
2. Men, in a church or outside a church, while they are assisting at sacred rites, shall be bare-headed, unless the approved mores of the people or peculiar circumstances of things determine otherwise; women, however, shall have a covered head and be modestly dressed, especially when they approach the table of the Lord.
It is interesting to note that both of these provisions in the law had fallen into widespread disuse long before the 1983 Code was promulgated; neither provision is mentioned in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and thus we may be reassured that men and women are not expected to sit separately in church.  Oh, yes, and women don't have to cover their heads.  But what was the status of those men and women who shamelessly sat together at Mass before 1983 (even if the women wore hats)?  Were they committing a sin to sit at Mass together?  Were their pastors in error for not informing them of the governing canon?  Were their bishops the ones responsible?  What about the popes during those years between the time when people obeyed this law and when husbands, wives, and their children of both sexes started occupying a single pew--should they have spoken out, or immediately issued an update to the law if they were okay with this practice?

As I learned last January through a series of conversational posts, it's a mistake to think of all of canon law as this uniform, equally unchangeable, static thing that has to be amended or updated before any variation can be made.  The confusing part for the average lay Catholic is that some of it is, and some of it isn't, and the people who get to decide what is and what isn't are usually one's lawful superiors in the Church: one's pastor, one's bishop, the pope.  Nobody thinks that Pope Francis sinned somehow by washing women's feet (well, okay, almost nobody; I haven't checked in with the folks at Rorate Coeli, for example).  Some people think he did some harm by being vague about this, by not changing the rules first and officially, or by setting a bad example that will make other people ignore parts of canon law they don't like.  The sad truth is that the liberal agitator types don't have any problem ignoring the bits even of Divine law they don't like, and have never been much constrained by canons (though perhaps cannons--oh, but it's Easter Monday, so I won't go there).  And I suspect that His Holiness will either quietly make an official change before next year's Holy Thursday, or else quietly wash the feet of priests or deacons or seminarians at a Mass inside St. John Lateran, so that any particular interest/approval/outrage over this will fizzle.

But those of us who have been somewhat traditional in our approach to Holy Thursday Mass should take heart in knowing that this Mandatum has had some different forms over the ages, and that it's not at all going to wreck things if women are officially allowed to be included.  In fact, I strongly suspect that it will be like the altar girl thing: celebrated by the people with pink womynpriest axes to grind, and then eventually muttered about when it becomes blindingly obvious yet again that letting lay women take part in something says absolutely nothing in favor of the silly, impossible idea of Catholic priestesses.  In fact, the more times lay women are allowed to do certain things in church, the more the agitators are going to have to realize that there's simply no way to sneak into the priesthood: the Church has declared definitively that she can't ordain women, and that's that.  In the end, the ones doing the hand-wringing over the female foot-washing may be the people who cling to the outmoded, outdated notion that any day now the Holy Spirit will overturn 2000 years of tradition and remake the Church in the agitators' images.  It's not going to happen, and Pope Francis is pretty clearly against any such notion.


Unknown said...


Well done. I'm bookmarking this one.

Cesar Ruiz said...

1) This is a matter of rubrics of the Mass, not canon law.
2) As an example, the rubrics require that a priest show the faithful both species of the Eucharist after each has been consecrated.
3) The priest may forget to do so, or there may be no faithful to show it to. He might also be too weak to lift the chalice high enough, or at all. The priest may just be (overly?) concerned that he might spill the sacred blood.
4) We can presume he's doing it to be disobedient to the rubrics, or we can in charity assume that there is a legitimate reason for doing so.
5) The Pope is the Pope, but he too, especially being such a humble man, is under obedience to the rubrics. However, in charity we must assume that he was compelled to wash the feet of women.
6) I wash my baby daughter's feet. Washing the feet of females is not the issue. The issue is, since everything has meaning, what does the Mandatum mean at a liturgy that recalls what Christ did at the Last supper? To answer that we need to ask what did our Lord's actions mean?
7) The primary meaning is most certainly a priestly one. Note that the Gospel according to Saint John is the only account that does not recount the institution of the Eucharist and the Priesthood with the words of consecration. However, Saint John doesn't need to because he relates these via the Bread of Life Discourse and the washing of the feet.
8 ) Numbers 8:5-26 details the ordination ritual of the Levites. Saint Peter, a blockhead, eventually gets what our Lord is going to do and this is why he then asks Jesus to wash his entire body. Peter is saying, make me a Priest!
9) This shows that the liturgy is a great opportunity for catechesis. Every year, at every parish that washes the feet of women, we have a huge wasted opportunity.
10) In charity, we must assume that the pressures on the pastors of souls are such that given the parish or correction facility, they feel crippled and unable to 'raise the chalice'. What we then get is something that is not the ideal.
11) The real problem is that this will be used by many to argue for disregard for the rubrics. These people will beat pastors over the head with, "Why can we not change this or that? The Pope washed the feet of women!"
12) Given the reality in parishes, I think it would be best to wash the feet of twelve only if they are all males. If females are to have their feet washed, then the number should be different.
13) Washing the feet of women should require that the homily be very clear about what this washing will mean. It should be very clear that it has nothing to do with what our Lord ultimately meant for his apostles on that night. The Holy Father did a very good job of doing this in his Homily by focusing completely on charity and not mentioning the institution of the priesthood.
14) We cannot deny that there is an ideal, and that it can be done. His Excellency, the Most Reverend Peter A. Libasci, bishop of Manchester, washes the feet of men only.
15) What makes it even more poignant is that he includes young men discerning their vocation.
16) There is no problem including married men in the Mandatum, since married Catholic men can also be called by God to Holy Orders. A married man may be called to the Diaconate. Even a Latin Rite married man, may be called to an Eastern Catholic spirituality and ordained to the priesthood, if that is the will of God.
17) Sometimes the argument is that it is too difficult to find men who would like their feet washed. Baloney! Go for the ideal, and there will be too many guys to choose from. In fact, at our own parish, we had ten young men in cassock and surplice, each discerning his vocation, each a potential priest, each would have been willing to re-enact what our Lord did that fateful night.

Jacque said...

Erin... this was the best I've read yet on this subject. You are full of information, and I love your consistant common sense aproch to things.

I'm not sure what I think of our Holy Father yet, but what I think doesn't matter.

Red Cardigan said...

Thanks, Jacque! :)

Angela M. said...

Thank you for this post. Every year I'd work myself into a lather (no pun intended) about our priest washing the feet of women. Eventually he only washed the feet of men, to my great satisfaction. After reading this post I have no feelings toward this one way or the other anymore. Thank you !!!!

Carissimi Amici said...

I'm with Cesar. There are many in the clergy who disregard the rubrics. These acts of SS Francisco, encourage those in the clergy who foment such chaos.The Liturgy belongs to The Church, which is all of us, laity and clergy, not Fr. X or Y, no matter how lofty (or purposely misguided...see "subtle" female "ordination" message by some bishops mentioned in your post) his intentions.

Carissimi Amici said...

I'm with Cesar. The rubrics are there for a reason, specially to avoid confusion among the laity. SS Francis sent a signal to many in the clergy that's OK to invent as you please. The Sacred Liturgy belongs to the Church, i.e. laity and clergy. No priest has the authority to change it because it doesn't belong to Fr. X or Y.