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.