Washing Women's Feet

Pope Francis kisses a prisoner's foot during the traditional Washing of the feet at the Rebibbia's jail in Rome (April 2015) Photo: L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO/EPA
There is a general feeling of dismay over Pope Francis decree on the Mandatum and I just don't understand why he has done it. He is getting a ton of flack over it and it feels like he has handed those who would choose to beat him a stick here.

I can't help but recall the conversations that were circulating at the point of that first Mandatum. Pope Francis appeared to be deliberately breaking the rules- the rules he has just changed, but much of the chatter was about whether he knew what the rules were and whether anyone had the courage to point out to him what he was actually doing?

Of course, the Madatums (Mandatis?) he has "performed" so far as Pope have been deeply moving. The discomfort clear on the faces of some of those above is self-evident. At this ceremony the Pope asked the inmates, some of whom were reduced to tears, to pray for him, saying that he too needed to be cleansed of “my filth”. He said the ceremony was an expression of Christ’s openness to serving and loving all people, regardless of their sins.
“Even I need to be cleansed by the Lord. And for this, pray during this Mass, so that the Lord also washes my filth also, so that I become more slave-like in the service of people as Jesus did,” he said.

The actions of the holy father had an affect and touched people. They are a public display of humility and service. And of course, most people had no idea why there was any fuss about this, so far removed are we from the reasons we perform these ceremonies in our Churches. The lucky few faithful whose priests try hard to explain and carry out the actions of Christ in an attempt to bring the Gospel message to life are the ones I now feel really sorry for (like Father Ray Blake for example). Father Simon Henry points out that this legislation simply catches up with the reality that the rule has been ignored for years since Vatican II. He also points out that the instruction does still say that candidates should be drawn from the faithful - that is, from among Catholics and it also says "can" not "must", which leaves the door open to continue in the tradition carried on until now.

Dr. Joseph Shaw, the LMS Chairman has issued the following statement:
This decree can be seen as a concession to existing practice, and its good intentions are evident. It nevertheless undermines attempts to 'resacralise' the Ordinary Form, and it reinforces the trend which has seen priests increasingly surrounded by women during Mass, serving, doing the readings, and as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. This inevitably makes the all-male priesthood itself harder to understand.
Liturgical conservatives who have sought in recent decades to keep the rules of the Roman Missal by admitting only men to the ceremony of the mandatum, often in the face of considerable pressure, may well feel the rug has been pulled from under them by this decree. This has happened many times, as Rome has felt unable to hold the line on liturgical abuses, and has simply allowed them: notably female altar servers and Communion in the hand.
These concessions have moved many to reconsider the Extraordinary Form, which is not affected by this decree, or similar concessions to liturgical abuses in the past. It is in the Extraordinary Form that the Church's liturgical traditions are maintained.
The ceremony of washing of feet on Maundy Thursday was based on Our Lord washing the feet of the disciples, which was adopted first by Abbots washing the feet of their monks, and Bishops washing the feet of their clergy. Outside the liturgy, Kings would wash the feet of poor men - and queens of women. For men to wash the feet of women would have been unthinkable until very recently, and would be problematic in many cultures today.
Before 1955 the mandatum did not take place after the Gospel, but after the end of Mass; it is optional, and it is not always done in celebrations of the Extraordinary Form. The 1955 reform indicated that it should take place in the choir (or sanctuary) of the church, which is properly speaking an area reserved for the clergy, and the servers assisting them. Opening this area to laymen, and now women, weakens the symbolism of the separation of nave and sanctuary. Women were forbidden to go into the sanctuary of the church, even to read a reading, as recently as the 1974 General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
On balance, I think there are two elements to this piece of news and its import. It is a liturgical hotspot and so bound to cause great concern for those who are worried about Pope Francis' direction. The mandatum does have an important dimension of humility to it. Christ physically demonstrates how we should treat each other, and it struck me, watching the prisoners at last year's liturgy, break down in tears- some looking utterly stunned by what was going on- just how powerful a gesture this was. However, the counter point is that there is also emphasis in John's text on Jesus' relationship with the Apostles. This has always been the focus of this liturgy. Francis' letter mentions nothing of this relationship

This leads me to conclude that this seems like the most pointless piece of Papal legislation I have ever witnessed. Everyone who was minded to ignore the precept- and the reason behind it- washed the feet of women anyway (perhaps this is why Pope Francis did it that first year?). A better trick would have been to teach people what it means and why it is done at all? Father Z ascertains from the text that Francis is trying to “improve” (migliorare) the rites so that they express fully the meaning of Christ’s gesture in the Upper Room. The Holy Father then seems to lock into a certain interpretation of that gesture: “his self-gift ‘unto the end’ for the salvation of the world, his charity without boundaries”. Francis mentions nothing of the relationship of Christ with His Apostles. Francis then commands that there be a change in the rubrics of the Roman Missal, saying sono giunto alla deliberazione … I have reached the decision…”. Fr. Z makes one very important point:
...just as in the cases of Communion in the hand and the use of altar girls, both of which were legalized after years of blatant disobedience to the law, this move by Pope Francis could be interpreted to mean that liturgical norms mean very little and, worse, that liturgy means very little. Thus, we move deeper into a brave new antinomian world. I suspect, however, that if you were to choose to make it up as you go (disobey) in the traditional direction rather than in the innovative direction, the world would be brought down on your head.
Fr. Hunwicke meanwhile notes:
most interesting, both his own words, and the consequent Decree of the CDW, clearly restrict the group to "the Faithful" [fideles once] and "the People of God" [populus Dei twice]. I do not know of evidence that this restriction was explicitly present in the previous legislation.
In the past, Papa Bergoglio ignored the Law as it then stood; now that he has changed that Law, I wonder if he will himself obey it by excluding the unbaptised.
If he does, I will consider this an advance. If he continues his previous arbitrary approach to the Law of which he is himself the supreme giver upon Earth, I may think the less well of him.
Let's get this in perspective. All this really means is that those who chose to wash women's feet at the Mandatum before this legislation are no longer breaking the law. No one is being forced to wash women's feet at the Mandatum and no one is being forced to wash feet at all, as the ceremony is completely optional anyway. Whatever choice a priest makes, I hope that he will try to convey the important Gospel message held in this liturgy about humility, service and the mission of the priesthood.


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