Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thirteen Clerics or Thirteen Poor Men

Why were the feet of women not washed of old (and still should not be, according to the rubric, whatever of a certain diocesan bishop's self-dispensation therefrom)? – surely, for reasons of modesty. Consider for a moment even the attitudes of people just a century ago, in Edwardian times: would not it have seemed quite scandalous to them to behold a priest or bishop not merely washing the feet of women, but kissing them? And in any case, the removal of stockings beforehand would have seemed to people of that age awfully erotic (truth to say), making it hardly fit and proper.

In the licentious West in our own time, "anything goes", and so feet are not quite so erotically-charged as they were down to modern times (let alone their close relations ankles and legs!): hence, there is not quite the same unseemliness associated with washing them. But I do wonder if those delighted by the washing of female feet are too uncritically accepting of current Western norms: I suspect in many cultures (those of the Islamic world, for example) it would be totally outrageous for a man to wash the feet of a woman to whom he is not very closely related.

Touch, after all, not to mention the customary kiss of the foot – not required by current rubrics, but still carried out by many, including at least one bishop ordained since the reform of the liturgy in the 1960's – is of its nature quite intimate. To better illustrate this, consider for a moment the problems inherent in carrying out this rite in a chapel of a nunnery: it would seem disquieting, I argue, to see a priest wash the feet of religious sisters or nuns, since their persons are consecrated to the Lord, and are thus sacred and untouchable by males. Rather, in such a case no doubt the abbess or prioress would be the better choice of person to perform this ritual – which would therefore be better done separately from the Mass of Holy Thursday, as a private intramural function.


In the past – down to the preparatory liturgical reforms of the Roman Rite in the 1950's, which issued in the Novus Ordo – this ritual foot-washing was prescribed to be carried out after the Holy Thursday Mass and also after the stripping of the altars, and was compulsory only in cathedrals and collegiate churches, being optional and apparently rarely done in others (such as parish churches). Furthermore, the rule was that the prelate or superior who officiated at the Maundy or Mandatum (this being the name for the ceremony of the foot-washing or pedilavium) washed the feet of either thirteen clerics or thirteen poor men. (Apparently Pope St Gregory the Great set out to wash the feet of twelve poor men, but a thirteenth of striking appearance mysteriously joined them, and as mysteriously disappeared afterward before any could determine who he was: Gregory believed him to be an angel; and since that singular occurrence, thirteen, not twelve, became the accepted number of persons for the Maundy.)

Now, if thirteen clerics – priests, or, as at Rome until 2013, bishops – have their feet washed, then they most aptly represent the Apostles, who had been ordained priests of the New Testament at the Last Supper by Christ Himself, when, after first transubstantiating bread into His Body and wine into His Blood, He bade them "Do (offer) this as My memorial." It was the feet of His new priests that Our Lord laved.

But of course His command to them was to wash each other's feet, intimating thereby that they ought serve each other in charity and love; and this command was not merely for His Apostles to fulfil, but for all Christians to do likewise. We need not each one of us literally wash the feet of all Christ's disciples, but we do need to serve and aid and help each other, and not just as the pagans do and as unaided reason teaches us, but in a Christian spirit of Christlike, sacrificial service. Given this significance, it is thus entirely right and proper for a priest or bishop to wash, not the feet of representative members of the clergy, but instead humbly to lave the feet of those most in need of Christian charity – that is, the poor.

For the reasons I have detailed above, until our own age in the West, it would have seemed quite improper for a man to wash a woman's feet, given the sensual nature of such contact; but it may be argued that the former frisson of excitement inherent in such has largely dissipated in modern Western culture, given the greater degree of casual and non-sensual contact between the sexes in everyday life: and so the former rule restricting the Maundy to men may, if competent authority so legislates, be laid aside.

I will, however, re-iterate what often seems forgotten (though a bishop late of Buenos Aires knows it well): if a priest chooses not to wash the feet of clerics (which is one way of instantiating Christ's washing the feet of His chosen band), then it is better not to select members of the parish council, nor various members of the typical middle-class parish, but to go out to the slums and hospitals and hospices, and wash the feet of those who really and truly are poor. That is why – leaving aside any dispute over that word viri in the rubric – the actions of the former Cardinal, now Pope, are so truly evangelical and moving.


The words of the Vatican spokesman in response to criticisms of Francis, Bishop of Rome, are quite pointed, and I think truly point out what is more important here: the evangelical and astoundingly powerful witness to Christ's Gospel that he bears in performing these actions (which he does so, dispensing himself, implicitly, as not merely a bishop empowered to do so, but as the Supreme Legislator on earth, from what is the otherwise-binding rule):

In response to the many questions and concerns raised over Pope Francis washing the feet of 12 young people at the Roman Juvenile Detention Centre on Holy Thursday evening, especially that two were young women, Fr. Lombardi has sent me the following information to be shared with you. 
One can easily understand that in a great celebration, men would be chosen for the foot washing because Jesus, himself washing the feet of the twelve apostles who were male.  However the ritual of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday evening in the Juvenile Detention Centre in Rome took place in a particular, small community that included young women.  When Jesus washed the feet of those who were with him on the first Holy Thursday, he desired to teach all a lesson about the meaning of service, using a gesture that included all members of the community.  
We are aware of the photos that show Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, then-Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who in various pastoral settings washed the feet of young men and women.  To have excluded the young women from the ritual washing of feet on Holy Thursday night in this Roman prison, would have detracted our attention from the essence of the Holy Thursday Gospel, and the very beautiful and simple gesture of a father who desired to embrace those who were on the fringes of society; those who were not refined experts of liturgical rules.  
That the Holy Father, Francis, washed the feet of young men and women on his first Holy Thursday as Pope, should call our minds and hearts to the simple and spontaneous gesture of love, affection, forgiveness and mercy of the Bishop of Rome, more than to legalistic, liturgical or canonical discussions.

(I do in humility beg His Holiness to dissuade others from being led into an antinomian spirit, as they could be by his actions and these quoted words, rather than wisely to perceive his use of the powers inherent in him as bishop and Pope given the circumstances mentioned, by using his power to change the word viri to homines in the rubric governing the washing of feet in the Holy Thursday liturgy. In this way, no one would feel either pressured to do what the law seems to exclude, nor guilty about ignoring it.)


One unfortunate aspect of the present contretemps is that the age-old restriction of the laving of feet to those of men parallels the fact that the Apostles given the fulness of the New Testament priesthood at the Last Supper were men, and men only, and that the Church has always understood her Master to have imparted authority to His Apostles to confer the ministerial priesthood on men only, and to pass on that power to their successors the bishops of the Church, so that all Christian priests are men (just as, recall, all the Aaronic priests were, and indeed all priests of God Most High, whether under the Law or before the Law, according to Scripture). Now this is true – and a scandal to some.  

Therefore, those who still pertinaciously dissent from this orthodox Catholic rule are precisely those who most agitate for the washing of feet to involve women also – since they regard it as a symbolic inroad into the "male-dominated" priesthood, just as they crowed over the permission given some decades ago whereby girls may act as altar servers: in both cases, the extension of involvement in these activities is perceived as preparing the way for the uncatholic and antiscriptural dream (or rather nightmare) of obtaining purported ordination for women.

(It goes without saying that it is entirely risible to assume that His Holiness is anything other than totally orthodox in his faith, as all credible reports confirm, so to fondly imagine his actions each Holy Thursday convey some gnostic significance is a vain thing.)

I recommend that those in conscience convinced that the Church is heinously wrong in restricting ordination to men earnestly strive in prayer to reconcile their heterodoxy with the truth; and, if they cannot, then perhaps they ought go somewhere where all their desiderata are won, and they can see how well they work – that is, go off to the Anglicans, where one can have all the heterodoxy one likes, and plenty of latitude in matters of morality too.  Leave those who actually want to be Catholics and believe in Christ's religion to practice their Holy Faith in peace!


Another pertinent question arises: did not Christ's command to us to wash one another's feet, particularly in the literal rather than the metaphorical sense, apply only to Christians, or not? Obviously Christians should do good to all; but should Christians in a Christian liturgy wash the feet of non-Christians, even of unbelievers? If I were a Muslim, for example, let alone a female follower of Mahomet, I would hardly wish to join the infidel Christians for their attempts at worship, nor really understand why a man in white was so eager to wash my feet – but perhaps his humility would prepare my heart for conversion to the truth, as is devoutly to be hoped. I invite comment...

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