The Pope's Mandatum

On Maundy Thursday the Pope just outside Rome where he celebrated the Mass of the Last Supper at the Casal del Marmo Juvenile Detention Centre where he washed the feet of 12 jailed teens. I have thought carefully before posting on this event and read as much as I can so that I can understand both sides of the argument. My initial reaction was one of deep joy and appreciation, but on hearing of the concerns of many I love and respect, many who know far more than I do on the subject, I began to feel worried and concerned. This post constitutes a broad survey of the issue.

From the reaction of the media, what seems clear is that this has been seen as an act of great humility and practically all the reaction I have read from outside the Church has been positive, almost shocked that this man would do this. Of course, all our priests did this on Thursday, but it is Pope Francis choice of venue and participants that have drawn the attention of the world's media to the essential message of Christ in this act:
"Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." Jn 13: 12-15.
What Jesus does here is constitutes a model of humility. Foot washing was a gesture of hospitality (Gen 18:4; 1 Sam 25:41; Luke 7:44) performed by the master's slaves when welcoming a dignitary to the house. The act is demonstrative of Jesus' love for His own to the end. It represents His coming sacrifice on behalf of His disciples. Jesus' action is an example; a pattern that we must follow in our own lives by loving and honouring our heavenly Father. This includes a willingness to serve others, even to the point of death (cf. Jn 15:13).

The reaction to Pope Francis actions have been profound. As far away as Los Angeles the ripples have spread out, not amongst introspective, Vatican watching Catholics, but the young boys at the juvenile detention facility. When these lads heard of Pope Francis’ wish to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at Rome’s Casal del Marmo prison with the young inmates there, many of them expressed their desire to participate from afar and in close solidarity to what the Pope was going to do in another juvenile hall.

To do this they have written letters to Pope Francis, thanking him for his gesture of love and service, praying for him – as he has asked all of us to do, describing the sadness of their lives in detention, and asking for prayers to help them endure the darkness and hopelessness of their situations… some of these youngsters will spend the rest of their lives in prison. You have to read these if you haven't already, they are very moving.

Deacon Bill reacted by stating that 
I can safely say that I have not experienced the nearly universal outpouring of hopeful enthusiasm over the papacy which we are now experiencing since the days of John XXIII. I do not write this from some naive expectation that "he will change church teaching," as some like to say. Rather, it is in the way he is approaching his ministry as Bishop of Rome (his preferred style of self-reference). He is clearly a man of the people, and the people are responding in kind. People who might be complaining that all he has done thus far is more "style" than "substance" are missing their Marshall McLuhan, that "the medium is the message." I also find an echo of John XXIII's insight during his opening address to the Second Vatican Council, that religious truth is one thing, timeles and unchangable, but the ways and means by which we communicate that truth is quite another. Where Pope Benedict was brilliant at communicating religious truth through the theological enterprise, Pope Francis is demonstrating through his earthiness.
Some of the comments on the Youtube video of Pope Francis' visit to Casal del Marmo also go to show us the effect his actions are having in the world:

However, there are other considerations, all be they more introspective ones—in that they are only Catholic concerns. Rorate Caeli stated that this act marked the official end of the reform of the reform in a post which both frightened and upset me (as it seems to affirm rupture and discontinuity).

My beloved Fr. Ray said:
I do not believe it is a big deal for Pope to wash a girl's feet. He can do what he likes and change whatever Law he wishes, indeed it will be seen as a very popular move by the media and the majority of Catholics, who fail to understand this action as a sign of Christ washing his Apostles' feet. 
It is however a very big deal for the the Supreme Legislator of the Church to break the Church's law or to set those laws at nought, especially as Supreme Legislator he has the right to change the Law. It does not bode well for a "Reforming" Pope to do it.
He has a point. And his response was not the most outspoken condemnation of the Pope's actions by far. Father Bede Rowe certainly pulls few punches on his blog.

So what law has the Pope contravened? Dr. Ed Peter's is a Canon Lawyer who blogs. He sums up Father Ray's point brilliantly when he states that Popes, like dads, don't have a choice in the matter. Popes 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. Now, none will dispute that Pope Francis has, by washing the feet of women at his Holy Thursday Mass, set an example. Dr Ed explains that liturgical law expressly limits participation in that rite to adult males, a pontifically-promulgated law which many loyal priests and bishops have struggled to maintain in service to the unity (dare I say, the catholicity) of liturgy (c. 837). The problem is that by disregarding his own law in this matter,  Pope Francis sets a questionable example at Supper time. He does not violate a divine directive, nor does he abrogate the law.

To understand the upset, we must consider that, as Dr. Ed states:
compliance with this law has cost many faithful pastors undeserved ill-will from many quarters, and contempt for which has served mostly as a ‘sacrament of disregard’ for Roman rules on a variety of other matters. Today, whether he wanted to, or not, Francis set the Catholic world an example, about solidarity with outcasts, certainly, and about regard for liturgy.
So the issue is not the wider perception, but what this well-intentioned action means for those struggling to maintain loyalty for the priesthood. The liturgical struggle we have faced over the last few decades has been a correction of the liturgy. Many, including me, consider this as an essential reaffirmation of the importance and relevance of the Catholic faith which will redress many of the issues of decline and misunderstanding. Meanwhile these issues have been high-lighted and affirmed in diatribes against relativism consistently by the Papacy, including John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. In short, if it is important (your faith), act like it is! If God is truly present at Mass, act like He is!

Fr. Z is considered by many to be the Traditionalist torch-bearer, but he showed what many might consider to be uncharacteristic restraint on this issue (being as he seldom shies away from picking fights with anyone on issues like this). He concentrates on what Pope Francis is really saying. Instinct tells me this is the correct approach. He suggests that Pope Francis is up to is trying to project, re-project, is an image of the Church as compassionate. He is trying to help people remember (or learn for the first time) that she is actually all about compassion, charity in its truest form.

Meanwhile, Damian Thompson of the Telegraph tweeted an interesting comment:

Perhaps when we consider this action in the context of Sacred Scripture (as I did when I began this post), and in the context of Holy Week, we might forget our concerns about ourselves, and instead see Pope Francis actions for what they were: a powerful sign of the love of Christ to the whole world.


  1. I like what the Holy Father did, and the message he intended to send; but not how he did it, and the messages he sent unintentionally (I presume).

    He could usefully have explained that he was granting himself an exemption from Canon Law (which I am sure he could) or changed the law or...

    I hope that his humility enables him to hear the voices of (genuine and legitimate) disquiet (here I disagree with Damian Thompson, whom I certainly do not regard asa stalwart of Traditionalism) and learn about the predictable unintended consequences of this way of behaving.

    I know that he is not as interested in liturgy as his predecessor, but as Dr Peters and Fr Z. make clear, this is less about liturgy than about governance, and that is also important.

  2. It's great to read something so well-balanced on this: that can acknowledge (and indeed share) some of the concerns about the Pope's actions, while also seeing the big picture of the huge positive impact that this has had.

    As a "sympathetic outsider", it's been interesting to see how many "trads" have responded to this. It's clearly a struggle for many of them to find themselves at odds with Pope Francis. Equally, however, there are clearly a few for whom it's not a struggle at all - who seem to be rather relishing it. Which is psychologically interesting, for starters.

    What would be interesting would be to see more commentary on the subject of "faithful dissent" for Catholics. The doctrine of papal infallibility is often misunderstood (certainly by outsiders) as implying that Catholics have to agree with the Pope about everything. But the disagreements over Francis's actions since his election show a more complex picture. Some of the disagreement (or expression of concern) is clearly within the bounds of "orthodox fidelity", but equally some of it surely isn't. A guide to the intricacies of this issue could be illuminating. Not that I'm saying you have to write it, though if you did "feel led" to do so...... ;-)

  3. I have put you down for a Liebster award -



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