Pope Francis the Liturgist

Plenty eyebrows have been raised and heads scratched because Pope Francis washed the feet of two girls one of whom was a Muslim at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper last night. This was announced before hand, so news of it has been circulating for several days.

One reader and commenter has directed my attention to an article in First Things by John Shimek in which the author expresses his conviction that the Holy Father acted within the jurisdiction of his office because “by virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely” (c. 331).  Ed Peters, on the other hand, a well respected canonist, believes that in the face of general disregard for canon and liturgical law, which has been prevalent throughout the Church for many years, the Holy Father is offering a poor example.  Peters believes this, even though in the past he has expressed his opinion that there is no particular reason why the law restricting the washing of the feet to men could not be changed.

The gesture is called the mandatum (Latin for “commandment,”) because it is to be understood in the context of Our Lord’s new commandment to love one another as He has loved us (Jn 13:34).  That is the meaning of the rite is without question.  Even so, the rubrics of Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite restrict the action to washing of men’s feet apparently as continuation of the tradition in the Extraordinary Form, which indicates that the feet of twelve clerics or poor men should be washed.  Hence, even though, as some have pointed out, the new liturgical texts make no reference to the apostles, it is clear that the continued reservation of the action to men in the Ordinary Form, does, in fact, refer indirectly to the apostles.

This issue is sensitive for doctrinal, legal and liturgically purist reasons.  The people who have pushed the practice in dioceses in the West have very often been promoters of women’s ordination to the priesthood.  As I understand it, that is not universally the case. Sometimes it is just a question of pastoral and political expediency, but there is no question that the practice very often has feminist undertones.  On the other side, apart from resistance against the feminist agenda, Catholics, and canonists like Ed Peters are concerned about antinomianism, that is, the idea that obligation to the law is contrary to the working of grace—a Protestant idea.  Then, there are those who have their liturgical and anticonciilar axe to grind.

But there is another consideration, which may give us better insight into the reason why Pope Francis, whose authority in these matters is supreme and immediate, chose to disregard the liturgical law.  (There is no indication that he has actually changed the law, though I would be surprised if he does not do so some time in the relatively near future.) John Shimek points to it when he indicates that Pope Francis himself may have given us the key in his first Wednesday audience.  But here I choose to quote from a different passage from that audience than the one that Shimek quotes:

Living Holy Week means increasingly entering into God’s logic, the logic of the Cross, which is not first of all that of pain and death, but of love and of self-giving that brings life. It means entering into the logic of the Gospel. Following, accompanying Christ, remaining with Him requires a “stepping outside,” a stepping beyond. Stepping outside of ourselves, of a tired and routine way of living the faith, of the temptation to withdraw into pre-established patterns that end up closing our horizon to the creative action of God. God stepped outside of Himself to come among us, He pitched His tent among us to bring the mercy of God that saves and gives hope. Even if we want to follow Him and stay with Him, we must not be content to remain in the enclosure of the ninety-nine sheep, we have to “step outside”, to search for the lost sheep together with Him, the one furthest away. Remember well: stepping outside of ourselves, like Jesus, like God has stepped outside of Himself in Jesus and Jesus stepped outside of Himself for all of us.

This stepping outside has found expression in the carrying out the mandatum by the Vicar of Christ to love others as Christ has loved us.  Pope Francis washed the feet of the marginalized, without making a distinction of gender or even of creed.  The risk, or even the inevitable unintended consequence, is that this will be used by feminists and by those who have a disregard for the law to push their agenda.  I believe, the Holy Father is willing to take that risk in the same way that the fathers of the Second Vatican Council were willing to take the risk of opening up the windows to the world: Cardinal Bergoglio once said:

Our certainties can become a wall, a jail that imprisons the Holy Spirit. Those who isolate their conscience from the path of the people of God don’t know the joy of the Holy Spirit that sustains hope. That is the risk run by the isolated conscience. Of those who from the closed world of their Tarsis complain about everything or, feeling their identity threatened, launch themselves into battles only in the end to be still more self-concerned and self-referential.

The difference between the Council Fathers and Pope Francis is fifty years.  This is not optimistic Camelot of the 1960’s.  This is the beaten down Church, wearied under the burden of a long crisis.  The Holy Father is not offering us more of the same.  I believe he is saying that it is time to get over the old polemics and move on toward the what Pope Benedict called the “Real Council,” in which the law is balanced against the rediscovery of the “charismatic dimension” of the Church, which, according to Bl. John Paul II, is an important characteristic of the Council.

Is this asking a great deal from the members of the Church?  Of course it is.  Will many misunderstand?  In fact, they are.  But many of those who are intelligent enough to comment on the matter are also equipped to realize that traditional disciplines and the law do not limit the Holy Spirit whose charisms are “not subject to any antecedent rule, to any particular discipline or to a plan of interventions established once and for all.”

This is indeed risky business, but there is no way around it.  We have to trust the Holy Spirit who has been given to Christ’s Vicar on earth, is alive, active and efficacious in this moment of our lives.  We need to hear what the Spirit is saying right now to the Church and to us personally.

12 thoughts on “Pope Francis the Liturgist

  1. I still think a simple rule change would’ve made all of this a moot point. I think a lot of us understand why he did it. We just know how it’s going to be interpreted “back home” in many areas. And when you are seeking to undertake a serious reform (as I still think Pope Francis wants to do), being above reproach on these manners, and imposing no discipline upon others you will not impose upon yourself helps.

    Yet in the end, for those who think the reform of the reform is dead….. nonsense. The liturgical reform dies when individual priests let it die. Traditionalists lose the vibrant gift Pope Benedict XVI gave them when they stop working to spread liturgical devotion and piety.

  2. Kevin,

    I think the lack of rule change is the point. But it is not an antinomian point. He is the supreme legislator who is pointing to something beyond the law, namely, charity. It is a point that will be missed by both progressives and traditionalists. I would suggest, however, that the popes will continue to make these points until we get it right. Pope Benedict, for all his liturgical concern, and his personal preference for the magnificent, was not a programatic pope, nor was he traditionalist. He last great act, namely, his resignation and his deliberate entrustment of the Church’s future to the college of cardinals rammed that point home.

    • I’m not doubting his authority to do what he does. Even if I was, there’s the whole First See is judged by noone thing, and that kinda means something. As a person, I think even though he may have that authority, there are better ways to exercise that authority. My opinion doesn’t count for much, but I think it’s good to see both sides and see how this plays out.

  3. And also while he may not be making an antinomian point, many will with it. People like me are “protected.” I’ve got a great priest who is still going to do things properly, who understood the Pope doing an act of service, but I’m hoping this doesn’t have impact those who aren’t in such lucky situations. Chances are it won’t, but there’s nothing wrong with a little concern and extra prayer.

  4. I agree with you, Kevin, though I still think that the Pope is signaling that there really is no option but to move through or between the progressive/modernist polarity (extremes that are so far apart that they share the same principles and come up with exactly the opposite answers).

    There are those who will misunderstand, no matter what we will do. I think that the traditionalists grossly have misunderstood Benedict. Bishop Fellay, for example, thought Pope Benedict was going to abandon Vatican II, and then this “traditionalist” pope makes a whopping affirmation of collegiality his last papal act. Many traditionally minded Catholics in good standing have shown far more sympathy with the SSPX than can reasonably be supported by an appeal to Pope Benedict.

    It seems to me that those who are in a position to understand the plan need to move the ball along, and not spend too much time worrying about those who will misunderstand. At some point critical mass will be obtained. If holy pastors and well-formed lay people get on board, so will the simple faithful. The ideologues on the fringes will not be reasoned with. For them there will need be an extra dose of patience and much prayer.

  5. I think of the Pope’s actions as similar to that of Jesus in Mark 3. Here is another beautiful story on the event –
    In Christ,

    The Shepherd Goes in Search of the Lost Sheep

    Youth Moved by Pope Francis Visit to Juvenile Detention Center
    By Antonio Gaspari

    “Minister Severino said she saw so much love in the Pope’s eyes, and it is such love of which these youth are in need to return healed to society. “They can do it,” she concluded, they can do it, today you [the youth] have received a great help and we are all very grateful to you [Holy Father] for this,” she concluded.”


  6. Thank you for the explanation and discussion on this. We went to a different Church for Holy Thursday and Good Friday. For the first time that I can remember, we had 12 MEN on the altar for the feet washing. I was thrilled! Then I heard that the Holy Father washed the feet of two young women and I became so confused.

    I do agree that we must take all things into context when reading scripture. For instance, in Jesus’ time men and women had very polarized places in society. It was absolutely a “man’s” world from what I gather and this is no longer the case. Jesus loved and had compassion for the women of his time but he worked within the confines of His day. Does this mean we should have women priests? Who knows! There was a time I would have said, “Absolutely.” Then there was a time I would have said, “No way.” Now I must say that I no longer know what’s going on and what to think. I must just take the guidance from those i believe Christ put in place to guide us and that’s that.

    The polarization between traditionalism and modernism is playing a number on us all. The Holy Father maybe has it on his agenda to solve the division within the Church before we can go out and evangelize the rest of the world. Makes sense to me!

    Have a Blessed Easter.

  7. The Teaching on the Priesthood is a different matter –
    CCC –
    1577 “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.”66 The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry.67 The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.68

    I accept the loving gesture of our Holy Father as understandable under the unique circumstances of his visit and the explanations given for the exception. Personally, I like the tradition of men only for the foot washing (and, of course, the doctrine of the priesthood!)

    In Christ,

  8. The problem is that today everything is politics. There is almost a left/right agenda attached to everything. There will never be woman priests, but anything and everything that might be construed of even symbolic importance becomes a political football for people to fight over.

    This, of course, is a legitimate reason for concern. But it seems to be that it is appropriate for a leader, who is committed to reform, not to play by anyone’s rules or feel committed to accept any of the political assumptions. Real reform, the kind the Church needs, will prove impossible unless the Holy Father is free of the left/right loyalties.

  9. From your summary of antinomianism, Father:
    “[antinomians believe] obligation to the law is contrary to the working of grace”

    From your comment above:
    “the supreme legislator…is pointing to something beyond the law, namely, charity.”

    I fail to see a qualitative difference between the two, at most a difference of degree. Either the Church’s law is the sure guide to holiness and charity, or it is not. One cannot have it both ways: to argue that the Church’s law is only sometimes a sure guide for the faithful, while at the same time to defend the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium that traditionalists criticize and parse by talking about a “pastoral Council” and denigrating the teaching of postconciliar bishops, bishops’ conferences, even papal encyclicals. I recognize that the latter tendency is actually deeply nontraditional, despite remaining fundamentally perplexed by the postconciliar Church myself. What I don’t see is how this defense of the Pope’s abandonment of his law as a positive and meaningful act is any different from those traditionalists’ arguments that the letter of postconciliar teaching is to be disregarded in favor of a true teaching that better reflects God’s charity and will. Can you clarify this point?

    Of course it is within the pope’s legitimate power to disregard Church laws, though it also is not clear to me where the “line” is between those laws and divine laws. I hope I have expressed my concern intelligibly, and that you are having a blessed Eastertide.

  10. Kemp,

    Antinomianism posits a contradiction between the law and grace. Millenarianists and Joachimists point to an Age of Grace or an Age of the Holy Spirit in which the Church will no longer function as the institutional mediator of God’s dispensation. Neither the Old Law, nor the New Law will have any purpose after that time. Of course, this is heresy. A related effect of such notions is general contempt for rules, even if one does not formally hold to an antinomian position.

    But there is the opposite heresy of Jansenism, which is a denial of free will and identifies grace and the ability to adhere to a multitude of rules. It defines a life of grace by a strict adherence to secondary and tertiary contingent rules. The related effect here among those who are influenced by this kind of thought but may not be formally Jansenists is rigorism and legalism.

    If the “Spirit of Vatican II” crowd tends toward Antinomianism, the traditionalists tend toward Jansenism. That is not a formal accusation, just an observation.

    Antinomianism does not suggest that there are instances when it is permissible, indeed, necessary to bend the law (epikeia). Antinomianism asserts that the law and grace are incompatible. To say that that the highest law is charity, and that, therefore, contingent rules can be dispensed from in its interests is not the same thing as saying obedience to the law is detrimental the life of grace.

    I do not believe either Pope Francis, nor you and I are suggesting that the Church’s law is not a sure guide to holiness. Nor do I believe the Holy Father abandoned the law. This is the Vatican spokesman’s explanation:

    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.

    The reason why I believe this dispensation from the law is not the same thing as the traditionalist disregard for Vatican II is precisely because Vatican II is a pastoral Council in which perennial principles are applied in a new way to the situation in the modern world. Vatican II is about pastoral adaptation. Traditionalism is opposed to this in principle.

    May you have a blessed Eastertide also!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s