Friday, 29 March 2013

Pope washes feet of Muslims and women: is the handwringing justified?

As many feared, Pope Francis' Maundy Thursday Mass at Roman juvenile detention facility included the foot washing of two girls, and a number of non-Catholics, including two Muslims.

Over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia David Schütz attempts to provide a rationalisation for this.

In my he fails.

It is obvious that Pope Francis is trying to emphasize the mission of the Church, and the duty of priests, and indeed all Christians to dedicate themselves to the service of others.

But to try and convey this message by breaking Church law in order to do it (yes he is the supreme legislator and could change the law.  But he hasn't - yet), and more importantly, jettisoning centuries of liturgical and theological tradition, he is surely sending the wrong signal.

Popes are protected in their teaching.

But they can fail to make the best pastoral and other judgments.

This seems to me to be such a case.

Liturgy not theatre

One of the primary facture lines between traditionalists and modernists is the liturgy: to what extent can it be changed, manufactured to suit the message of the day; to what extent is it part of the Divine Tradition handed down by the centuries and safeguarded by the Church?

Pope Benedict XVI taught that although aspects of the liturgy can be modified, parts of it cannot.  Are the rules about whose feet can and cannot be washed part of that inviolable Divine-Apostolic tradition?  Perhaps not - but it is surely part of the Apostolic-Ecclesial tradition, those traditions whose origins go back to the earliest days of the Church, and is therefore not lightly to be discarded.

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.

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.


In fact it seems to me that in many ways the most disturbing part of this gesture of the pope is not the washing of women's feet, but the participation of Muslims in the ceremony.

Washing the feet of women misses the point of the connection with the institution of the priesthood and helps undermine the male priesthood. That is, to say the least, unhelpful.

Simply ignoring the Churches longstanding restriction of the footwashing to 'viri' (men) also sends the message that Church laws are made to be broken.  That could prove counter-productive indeed. 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?

 But it seems to me that the inclusion of Muslims and other unbelievers in a liturgical service meant for believers, and a ritual that is meant to be about the mutual service of Christians of each other, misses the point of the ceremony altogether.

Yes the Church needs to reach out, to preach its mission to convert all to Christ and cease being so internally focused.

That doesn't mean, however, rejecting the idea that mutual service within the Christian community should have priority.

The early Church formed at Pentecost was surely the most outwardly focused of all times.  Yet the early Church described in Acts ordained deacons not to give out aid to the Jews and pagans, but rather to look after those within the Christian community.

Charity, in other words, begins at home, which is why Christ washed the feet of his disciples, not random passersby in the streets, or those at the margins that he had at variously times sought out.  There is nothing narcissistic or self-reverential about this; rather it is something Christ himself modelled for us.

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 underlying message, I really do think the hand wringing going on over at Rorate Caeli and elsewhere is justified in this case.

What do you think?


A Canberra Observer said...

Jerusalem desolata est.

8 years of the hermeneutic of continuity torn up in 2 'humble' weeks.

A slap in the face for priests and layfolk who have fought, and suffered, to uphold Church teaching and law in the face of systemic disobedience.

Church law, liturgical or otherwise, will now be subject to personal judgement. Maybe this is what Newman feared in the definition of Papal infallibility?

Serve the poor? Yes. [And (some) traditionalists may be found wanting in this regard.]
Tear up Church tradition and symbolism in the name of this? No.
Tradition and symbols matter. They define who we are.

Joshua said...

I feel as you do. I hate also how the pedilavium has become the annual hate-fest among Catholics of various bents: "He washed the feet of WOMEN!" many complain against various priests; many more complain "He DIDN'T wash the feet of women!" against other priests. If I were a priest I would dread Holy Thursday, and rather wish to put my back out so I could justify cancelling the foot-washing altogether. Only the Devil is gladdened by such inversion of the intended symbolism: the manifestation of charity is turned into a motive for intolerance and sniping criticism.

I do recall seeing in Melbourne a particularly daft modification of this rite: after the parish priest washed various feet, the (female) pastoral associate came and washed the priest's feet! I assume the dear lady was unaware she was thus playing the role of the sinful woman...

Tony said...

From what I've seen so far, you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by what he said and what he did.

The rest is commentary.

A Country Priest said...

Good post Kate. Honest, but not hysterical. Dr Edward Peters, the blogsphere's favourite canon lawyer, presents a good analogy:

"Pope and dads set examples whether they want to or not. If I have dessert despite not having finished my supper, my kids do not experience that family rule as something presumably oriented to their welfare, but rather, as an imposition to be borne until they, too, are old enough to make and break the rules. . . . [Pope Francis has] set a questionable example at Supper time."

Bruce Stafford said...

I don't understand. What law has Pope Francis broken? John 13:1-7 states that he washed the feet of his disciples; it doesn't state how many or what gender.

Salvatore said...

Is the hand-wringing justified? Yes. Is there any point to it? No (IMO).
Like it or not, he’s the Pope now (even if he refuses to describe himself as such), and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. I think the New Liturgical Movement (which seems to be following a policy of silence regarding Begoglio) is probably setting us all a good example here.

Kate Edwards said...

Tony - I get what he is trying to convey, and totally agree with the sentiments in his homily, I just think this is an inappropriate way of trying to convey it!

As for what law is being broken Bruce, the Church's General Instructions on the Liturgy are quite clear on this subject, as the link to Dr peters' post by a country priest points out.

One can argue about the interpretation of the relevant scriptural passage, but I would note that we are Catholics not fundamentalist protestants: Scripture has to be interpreted in the light of tradition, and the tradition has always held that the last Supper involved only the twelve.

Kate Edwards said...

PS I'm still disturbed by the Muslim thing. Doesn't it smack of forced conversions and the light when prisoners are more or less forced ('encouraged') to attend and participate in a religious service not of their faith?

Bruce Stafford said...

But traditions sometimes can or have to change, Kate, especially if they become irrelevant or even harmful.
Certain university college "traditions" for "Freshers" come to mind. Consider the recent problems caused by certain "traditions" that were occurring in St John's College at Sydney Uni before Cardinal George Pell intervened. (He deserves full marks for that BTW, and I should add that normally I am no fan of George).

(Kate I am having problems with your page failing to connect after I post a comment - you might get two similar versions).

Kate Edwards said...

Bruce - Big difference between the secular traditions of a decade or so and the traditions instituted by Christ and handed down the centuries to us!

Mal said...

It seems that Pope Francis believes that the Cardinals elected him to be Bishop of Rome - and as a consequence the Pope?