Father Francis and the Female Feet

April 1, 2013 by · 11 Comments 

If you Google search “pope foot washing” this Easter Monday you will find the following headline on numerous news sites, including USA Today and ABC News. :
“Pope’s Foot-Wash a Final Straw for Traditionalists”
The gist:  On Holy Thursday in the Mandatum Rite – the Washing of the Feet – Pope Francis chose to wash the feet of two

Juvenile Detainees at the Casal del Marmo in Rome, including one of two female prisoners whose feet were washed by Pope Francis on Holy Thursday.

Juvenile Detainees at the Casal del Marmo in Rome, including one of two female prisoners whose feet were washed by Pope Francis on Holy Thursday.

girls, a Serbian Muslim and an Italian Catholic, along with ten boys, all twelve of whom are inmates at the Casal del Marmo, a juvenile prison in Rome.  This has been upsetting to some Catholics (not just “traditionalists”) who pay close attention to the Church’s liturgical rubrics, which call for  12 men (viri) to represent the 12 Apostles in the celebration of the Holy Thursday Liturgy.

If I understand the concerned responses of many Catholics, such as Fr. John Zuhlsdorf and canon lawyer Ed Peters, they generally go something like this:  We have a clear guideline for this ritual, which calls for twelve males.  This has the status of ecclesiastical law.  The Church has laws, and those laws have to be followed.  The Church is full of scofflaws who have ignored this rubric for a long time, usually for reasons related to feminism, a desire for women’s ordination (after all, Holy Thursday is the birthday of the Catholic priesthood, and the twelve foot wash-ees represent the Twelve Apostles, the first Catholic priests).  The pope’s good intention in washing the feet of these two girls might have very negative effects by those who are lusting for liturgical license.  In the words of Professor Ed Peters (who shows great respect for the pope in his disagreement with his decision):
What I find distressing is the inability to recognize (or refusal to acknowledge) that this action also had other effects, effects that might not be so benign. I have argued that among those effects was the sowing of new confusion about the binding character of liturgical laws in general, about the influence of a pope on good order in the community, and so on. Now, to be sure, there are sound answers to these questions, but they are not easily offered in the middle of the Triduum and splashed across secular news stories and blogs. This whole matter should have been handled differently from the start.
The outcry prompted a defense by the Vatican which was reported on the Washington Post website.  The explanation notes the context – the Pope was washing the feet of prisoners:
The Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the pope’s decision was “absolutely licit” for a rite that is not a church sacrament. Francis also took into account “the real situation, the community where one celebrates,” Lombardi added.The Casal del Marmo prison where Francis celebrated houses both young men and women, “and it would have been strange if girls had been excluded,” Lombardi said.
Yes. Strange. A radical understatement if ever there was one. Allow me to explain.
I submit that the decision that Francis made to set aside law for the sake of persons actually ILLUMINATES and CONTEXTUALIZES the nature of liturgical law, which exists FOR persons: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) A liturgical rite is a symbolic action. Think about what the washing would symbolize in a coed youth prison if a distinction was made between “male convict” and “female convict” when Christ’s vicar came into its walls to place himself before the prisoners as their servant.  In that sad context, the primary realities are “guilty,” “captive,” “marginalized.” In washing the feet of 12, he showed them that Christ came to be a servant to them all.  If Pope Francis had washed only the feet of males, what would that have signified for the young women prisoners, many of whom probably find themselves in the prison after suffering the abuse of men (e.g. pimps, absentee fathers, etc.)?  It would have signified exclusion and alienation, which is already the very substance of their shattered lives, a dark solitude that the Pope came to invade and to illuminate, if only for a moment.
In the Gospel of John the washing of the feet (see Chapter 13) is a multivalent symbolic action, one weighted with multiple meanings.  Yet it primarily symbolizes not the apostolic band being washed, but the nature of the one who comes from the Father to wash them, humbling himself to serve them.  That one is Jesus, who after washing his disciple’s  feet immediately tells them of His Passion and of their need to believe in His divinity: “I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you will believe that I AM.” (John 13:19)
The meaning could hardly be clearer: the one who gets down on the ground and washes dirty feet, then goes further and offers himself up to his executors out of love for the persons attached to those feet, is the Divine Son. THIS is the great message of Christianity about divinity:  God the All-Powerful Legislator of the Universe, whose very “logic” offers the intelligibility that makes the cosmos unsurpassable in symmetry and beauty, is so “high” that in love he can and does descend to the lowest. In the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, “Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to be able to be encompassed by the smallest: that is divine.
Accordingly, a pope going into a prison and putting the priestly ordination symbolism in the foreground by making sure that only males were washed would have betrayed this primary symbolism, the REAL THING to which the foot-washing rite so beautifully gestures. Even the rich significance for priestly ordination with which Holy Thursday is nobly weighted would have been falsified had our good Pope Francis done that, because divine servitude to all prisoners (read: you and me) IS the more essential Christian reality in which Holy Orders is a unique participation. The Catholic priesthood is an exponent of Christ’s foot-washing in the original sense of that word: “an expounder or interpreter” of it. Ministerial priesthood is exalted in the Church precisely by being a qualitatively unique participation in the servant-hood of Jesus Christ. It exists for service. Pope Francis was never more priestly than he was in Casal del Marmo last Thursday.
What about the rubrics?  Law is important, but life more so.  The only way for Pope Francis to have had both the law and life in the context of the Casal del Marmo was for him not to go there in the first place.  Would any Christian prefer that to what he actually did? For what he did was to go down to the lowest place, to bring hope to captives, to break out of what he called “ecclesial self-referentiality” in a speech offered in a pre-conclave meeting.  There he presented two models: one is the “evangelizing Church that comes out of herself” and another is “the worldly Church that lives in herself, of herself, for herself,” which he denounced as “theological narcissism.” The cardinals seem to have listened – they elected him.  And on Holy Thursday he made good on what he told them, and I predict he will do so again and again.  Breaking out of self-referentiality even when doing so flies in the face of custom has been the running theme thus far.  But in the words of Tertullian, “Dominus noster Christus veritatem se, non consuetudinem cognominavit – Christ our Lord called himself truth, not custom.”
The imprisoned female feet lovingly washed by our new Holy Father has offered to the Church and the world a better re-presentation of Jesus’ own symbolic action than the rubrics envisioned. Law certainly is necessary.  But by placing life over legality, Pope Francis showed us more than law. He showed us the Lawgiver, who is Love.

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11 Responses to “Father Francis and the Female Feet”
  1. Deacon Dean Herrick says:

    What a marvelously clear and, I believe, correct assessment of our Holy Father’s actions and our proper response to it. Many thanks!

  2. Fr. Jonathan St.Andre, T.O.R. says:

    I am so happy to read your thoughts on the Holy Father’s footwashing. It is facile to dismiss the Pope’s action as a grievance against liturgical custom without truly considering the context of that particularly liturgy. I think that there is a danger today in equating the letter of the law with the spirit of the law. Yes, we don’t abandon the letter but it must point to and lead to the spirit which is Truth. I am proud to follow such a Shepherd who reminds me of a certain one who ate with tax collectors and sinners.
    Fr. Jonathan St.Andre, T.O.R.

  3. Augustine Foley, OSB says:

    It is great the see clear and thoughtful and educated theology being shared with the church church.
    It is needed to balance out the sensational media covered of the church these days.

  4. Tom Neal says:

    Thank you for thinking faithfully and intelligently, for more fully radicalizing a ‘radical understatement’ and for interpreting Pope Francis’ actions in a manner that shows his decisions to be the manifestation of a genuinely priestly heart. Well done!

  5. anti antinomian says:

    I don’t think it is possible to have an intelligent conversation on this point. For the record, you have completely missed Father Z’s point – or at least several of them. He is not really upset about washing or not washing a girl’s feet as opposed to a man’s feet per se. Of course there is nothing wrong with that. The concern is much more about the Mandatum rite symbolic representing Christ’s preparation of the Apostles for the role of priesthood. In washing the Apostles feet, Christ was not only performing an act of humble service for them and encouraging them and others to do likewise. He was preparing them to assume the role of priesthood. This is symbolism is reinforced by the fact that almost everything else in the Holy Thursday Liturgy is about Eucharist and priesthood. If that is the case with everything else in this liturgy, it must also be the case with the Mandatum rite. In this case I believe that Father Z does not see this as a matter of choosing between washing the feet of males only or of males and femaies at this institution but of forgoing the rite altogether. By all means perform a symbolic act of humble service – but not THIS act of humble service.

    The other concern is that if directives as clear as those in the Mandatum can be set aside so easily when the liturgical minister has a insight into an alternate interpretation, then what directives are safe? Can any minister set aside any directive provided he has a sufficiently good reason, at least in his mind or in the opinion of the parish liturgy council? Is there any such thing as valid liturgical law then? Or are there merely liturgical recommendations that can be followed or not depending on whether the minister thinks then reasonable and valid?

  6. andrew petty says:

    In my former church everyone washed feet of other members. This was also true of the early church see 1 Timothy 5: 10 where a godly widow washed the feet of the saints.

  7. anti antinomian says:

    One of my definitions of a liturgists is this. A liturgist is one who feels free to disregard any directive with which they personally disagree and to enforce with an iron fist their favourite pet directives, even if those directives are of their own making.

    Those liturgy experts who reserve for themselves the right to set aside liturgical directives with which they disagree, should be prepared to be more accepting when people disregard their pet liturgical directives. Many people in my diocese have been forced to stand after communion against their own wishes. Now that the people who have enforced this have come out in favor of the Pope’s setting aside a liturgical directive, perhaps those of us who prefer to kneel after communion should now feel more free to do so.

  8. Julie says:

    You say, “The only way for Pope Francis to have had both the law and life in the context of the Casal del Marmo was for him not to go there in the first place.” But couldn’t he have changed the law? Had both that way?

  9. admin says:

    Good point! However, the official explanation from the Vatican seems to indicate that under normal circumstances Pope Francis would have simply followed the law. Fr. Lombardi said that had he not gone to the prison, he would have chosen men only.

  10. Mona says:

    Thank you for a sensible and insightful explanation for the pope’s decision. Jesus, after all was one who placed the needs of people above the rubrics of Jewish ritual and law on a number of occasions.

  11. Ben Dehler says:

    First, Jesus emphasized the Spirit of the law. He did not break the law willy nilly. He was against the way some Jews practiced the law to the point that it destroyed its spirit. I really think the Church needs to stop discarding her traditions. This has been the plague that has been killing it for the last 60 years. It used to be called “modernism”. Now we are being “spiritual” and “compassionate”. I don’t buy it. Explaining and living out the deep meanings of our sacred tradition has always been the answer. Our Church and world need the fullness of revelation to be presented to them……..not a “watering down” to help them understand. Which, in the long run, just destroys the faith.

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