Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Foot Washing: What's the big deal?

Pope Francis has again made headlines by announcing he will spend Holy Thursday washing the feet of inmates at the Rebiba prison in Rome. This is the third time the Holy Father has chosen to perform the foot washing ceremony in such facilities, visiting the Casal del Marmo prison in 2013 and the Don Gnocchi center for the elderly and disabled in 2014. 

Saying the Holy Thursday Mass in the prison in 2013 was one of the first gestures of Francis' pontificate, which earned him the respect of many while provoking apprehension among traditional Catholics. This misgiving among traditionalists provoked (and continues to provoke) ire among those who "don't see what the problem is" and can't understand why this is such a "big deal."

I would say this is one issue where the traditionalist objection is totally misunderstood - willfully, I believe. "Don't like it when Peter goes around with tax collectors and sinners, huh?" "Yeah, Jesus was offensive to the Pharisees, too." These are the sorts of shallow rebuttals our criticisms have been met with, as if there is really nothing deeper to traditionalist objections beyond the stupid old "tax collectors and sinners" trope.

So - even though I know they will not listen - let me once and for all clarify what the "big deal" is about the pontiff spending Holy Thursday washing the feet of inmates.

First off, lets clear the air about one thing: there is no problem with the pope celebrating a Mass at a prison or other such facility. Benedict XVI celebrated a Mass at Casal del Marmo prison during Lent of 2007 - the same location Francis used in 2013. The issue is not the location of the Mass, or that the pope wants to celebrate with prisoners, elderly, indigent, whatever. Not an issue.

Benedict, however, did not celebrate this Mass on Holy Thursday, and that is a big difference. This brings me to my first objection: The traditional location of the Holy Thursday evening Mass is St. John Lateran, the pope's cathedral. But John Paul II was had performed the rite in St. Peter's Basilica, which made the Holy Thursday Mass much more available to the faithful. St. Peter's Basilica (according to its website) is capable of seating 15,000 people; if Mass is held in the square, it can accommodate 80,000. Whatever one may want to say about Masses of that magnitude, it cannot be denied that a Mass in a basilica offers a much greater opportunity for participation of the faithful than a Mass in a small prison or nursing home. The Holy Thursday Mass, which inaugurates the sacred Triduum and which (until 1642) was a holy day of obligation is in a totally different category than, say, a daily Mass. This is why when Benedict XVI wanted to celebrate Mass in the Casal del Marmo, he did so in a daily Mass, not the Holy Thursday Mass, which as part of the sacred Triduum, is of a much more solemn and public nature than a mere daily Mass.

Remember, the pope is also Bishop of the diocese of Rome. This means that for the past three years, the faithful of that diocese have been deprived of access to the celebration of one of the most sacred Masses of the year by their bishop. I admit this is not a huge issue or a monumental scandal - but it is something.

Regarding the importance of this inaugural Mass of the Sacred Triduum, it is well to recall that its proper name is the "Mass of the Lord's Supper." The "theme" or focal point of this Mass has always been the double institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood by our Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. 

In his last Holy Thursday homily delivered in 2004, St. John Paul II preached on the centrality of the Eucharist and its connection to the priesthood in the context of Holy Thursday:

"While we fix our gaze on Christ who institutes the Eucharist, we have a renewed awareness of the importance of the priests in the Church and of their union with the Eucharistic sacrament. In the Letter that I wrote to priests for this holy day, I wished to repeat that the Sacrament of the altar is gift and mystery, and that the priesthood is gift and mystery, both having flowed from the Heart of Christ during the Last Supper." (source)

This is why one of the readings from the Holy Thursday Mass has always been the institution of the Eucharist as described in 1 Cor. 11:23-32. This has been part of the readings for the day as far back as we have records. In Pope Francis' Holy Thursday celebrations, there is little emphasis on these traditional themes. For example, Francis' 2013 homily does not mention the Eucharist at all; the refrain was a very generic message of "Help one another"; Francis' 2014 homily focused entirely on the foot washing ceremony and admonished Christians to "be servants to one another." No mention of the priesthood at all, and only a passing comment on the Eucharist, which he strangely subordinates to "service"; service is the main theme of the Mass in Coena Domini, and the Eucharist is an afterthought to service. This is an inversion from the familiar formula that the Eucharist, in fact, is the source and summit of the faith.

It must be remembered that though foot washing in general is a sign of service (cf. 1 Tim. 5:10), the Holy Thursday foot washing in particular is much more than that. Christ did not just wash His disciples' feet as a sign of service to mankind in general, but of the service the hierarchy renders to the clergy in particular. This is why most liturgical foot washing in the Church's history has always focused on the bishop's service to his clergy; priests, canons, deacons and subdeacons have been the recipients of foot washing; this was true of diocesan bishops as well as the pope. It is an ecclesiological ritual relating to the clergy and their superiors, not a general sign of service to mankind.

It is certainly not "wrong" to wash the feet of persons not among the clergy; obviously as the parish level, a priest does not have any clergy beneath him whose feet he can wash and the washing of laymen's feet is the norm (still, in some parishes, the priest will not wash the feet of anybody willy-nilly; he will choose representatives of different parish apostolates - Knights of Columbus, the DRE, ushers, etc). As mentioned above, foot washing was a sign of general obeisance in the early church. But at a pontifical Holy Thursday Mass, we would expect a bishop or the pope especially to recognize this clerical aspect of the rite by performing the Mandatum on the clergy subject to him. This gets obscured when the focus of the rite is reduced to mere "service" without reference to the clergy.

An interesting side note - it was always understood that the Lord's command to serve, while understood primarily in terms of the clergy, also had a broader significance. For this reason, beginning in the Carolingian era, there used to be two foot washing ceremonies, one for the poor, one for the clergy. This was practiced in monasteries as well as in the papal liturgies of Rome. The Mandatum of the poor was eventually discontinued, however, and only the Mandatum of the clergy remained. This illustrates the point that the "service to the poor" aspect of the Holy Thursday Mandatum was always secondary to the clerical aspect.

Incidentally, for a great summary of the history of the Holy Thursday foot washing ceremony, I recommend my new article "Mandatum: Liturgical History" on the Unam Sanctam Catholicam sister site.

If the Holy Thursday foot washing is supposed to signify the service of the hierarchy to the Church - and to the clergy in particular - then we can easily understand why it is totally inappropriate that non-Christians should be the recipients of the ceremony. In what fantasy land can a Muslim or atheist in any way represent the Church?

Finally, of course, we all know that the rubrics for Holy Thursday say the recipient of the foot washing must be a vir (Lat. "man"). In 2013, the decision of the Holy Father to wash the feet of women prompted some apologists to simply shrug and say, "Well, the Holy Father is the supreme interpreter of the Church's liturgical law and canon law. He can change it how he sees fit."

That's true to an extent. But it seems lost on many that to say one has an authority to change a law is not the same thing as suggesting he can simply break the law. We all understand this. If the Holy Father does not like the current legislation, he has the power to change it. He can promulgate new rubrics or new norms if he so chooses. But for law to be law, this is accomplished by an act of law; i.e., the lawgiver changing the law by an legitimate exercise of his legislative power. The law is not changed by the lawgiver simply breaking the law.

Suppose the speed limit in your town was 30 mph. Suppose your small town Mayor decided he did not like that speed limit. Suppose, on the premise that he was the "supreme authority" in your small town, he just decided to start breaking the speed limit with impunity. How would you react? You would be indignant! You would say, "If the Mayor doesn't like the speed limit, then change the law, but for heaven's sake, don't just break it!"

Since the rubrics for Holy Thursday have not changed, the fact remains that Pope Francis is simply violating the rubrics. You may say the law should change. You may applaud his inclusiveness. You may affirm that he has the power to change the law. But you cannot deny that he is breaking the law every time he washes the foot of a female on Holy Thursday. There's no other way to explain it.

Let us also remember that the conservative apologists who are now saying that the pope can do whatever he wants are the very same who, under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, loudly insisted that the letter of the law must be observed when it came to liberal priests washing women's feet.

It is not because I or anyone else has a "problem" with the pope fraternizing with the poor, or prisoners, or whatever. It is not because we think women are inferior or any nonsense like that. The substance of the traditionalist critique of Pope Francis' venues for Holy Thursday is that this is a violation of liturgical law and hence an abuse of power; that it obscures the ecclesiological symbolism of the Mandatum rite and constitutes a detraction from the Eucharistic and clerical focus of the Mass of the Lord's Supper; and that it deprives the Catholics of the Diocese of Rome from the ability to publicly celebrate the beginning of the Triduum with their bishop, thus depriving them of special graces.

You may read all this and shrug and say, "Eh. You're nitpicking." Maybe you think that. Maybe you are right. God knows. But it is definitely not a matter of traditional Catholics somehow objecting to the poor, or women, or prisoners receiving papal attention. You may think the objections are not worthy of consideration; but at least acknowledge that there are legitimate objections that go far beyond the tired old "tax collectors and sinners" mantra. It was never about that anyway.

See also:
Mandatum: Liturgical History (from USC)
How the Cistercians Can Help Us Disentangle the Washing of Feet (Dr. Peter Kwaskiewski, New Liturgical Movement)

Contact: uscatholicam[at]


Boniface said...

Anon, sorry, I accidentally deleted your comment! But what he said was what will a Muslim think by the Pope washing his feet. Could it perhaps signify to him that Christians will bow and serve Allah? Will it confirm a Muslim in his faith?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this column, Boniface. It should be spread far and wide.

A blessed Easter to you.

Beefy Levinson said...

Only God knows how much progressive buffoonery is going to be rationalized in "the spirit of Pope Francis" over the next century.

David L. Gray said...

I've been very critical of Pope Francis's pontificate, but let's be clear on this one - the same people who are railing against the Pope for washing the feet of prisoners are the SAME people who are railing against him for condemning the death penalty. The connection is clear.

Boniface said...


Please be clear. Are you trying to suggest that the "connection" is that these critics just dislike prisoners and don't want any gestures of clemency towards people in prison? If so, that's no "connection" at all. I have made it very clear that this isn't some elitist complaint about "Ew...the pope shouldn't be dealing with prisoners!"

The death penalty thing is related to this issue, but in another way - in both cases, we have the pope simply disregarding the directives of the Church.

Unknown said...

The traditional venue for the pope's Holy Thursday Mass of The Lord's supper is not St. Peter's Basilica but the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral,of the Diocese of Rome.

Boniface said...

You know I don't know if that's right or not, but of course it depends on how "traditional" you want to get. I did some research on this before I wrote and it appears that JPII and BXVI used to wash in St. Peter's, even though obviously the Lateran is their cathedral church. I could not find any reference to St John Lateran. Can you find a reference?

Quovadis7 said...

But, Boniface, might it be the case that the Holy Father is INTENDING to "break the law"?

You know - the old liberalist mantra: "the law is bad, and only the spirit is good" agenda.

Perhaps, that is why he seems willing to forgo the law to such a degree which scandalizes us "trads"?

Boniface said...

Quovadis, I think that is clearly understood. The only other possibility is that he is ignorant of the very existence of the law, which I cannot imagine to be the case. More likely than not he sees the law as a mere guideline that has to give way before the "needs" of the contemporary situation.

Anonymous said...

Your article is quoted extensively and commented upon in pewsitter.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Target identified and destroyed.. Good work, Brother Boniface

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

You know, even the Neo-Cats will reach a point where something is changed and a novelty is put in the place of that which was changed and they will say, Hey, that's not right.

Good luck when that day comes ultramontanes. You will not have my support

Anonymous said...

This is irrational.

Boniface said...

I know. What the Holy Father has been doing makes very little sense.

Matt said...

Boniface, regarding the appropriate "venue" for Holy Thursday: It is St. Saviour in the Lateran because that is the Stational Church for the day. It may well be that it is the Stational Church for the day because of the nature of Holy Thursday, but the appropriate venue is in virtue of its being the Stational Church.

c matt said...

In what fantasy land can a Muslim or atheist in any way represent the Church?

Dare I say it - in V II land?