Pope Francis, washing feet, and Catholic orthodoxy

At our parish Holy Thursday Mass, several teen girls were included among those whose feet were washed by the presider. In one of my occasional efforts to get my kids thinking about what we do and believe as Catholics, I leaned over to my 15-year-old son, sitting beside me, and whispered, “You know, we’re breaking the law of the Church right now.” It got a mild reaction on his face, but not much more, so after a moment, I decided to push the provocation just a further.

“But that’s okay,” I said, “because it’s kind of a stupid law anyways.” That provoked a quick double-take from him that almost made me chuckle. (What? Dad’s saying something the Church says is stupid?? Not something he’s heard much.)

“What law?” he whispered back.

“Tell you after Mass,” I said.

I know some will say it was inappropriate for me to suggest to my young son that any “law of the Church” is stupid (and yes, I know we’re talking about liturgical rubrics and not canon law, but to speak of “rubrics” to my son would have been meaningless!). And maybe they’d be right. But you can bet my son asked about what law we’d broken when we got home, and that led to a worthwhile chat about one of the most beautiful and compelling rites of the Church’s liturgical year. No small feat.

Anyway, I felt a little better about my comment when I read the next morning that the Pope himself is apparently not so fond of the rubric we ignored at our parish, the one that says those whose feet are washed in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper are to be men.

Since this news came out, we have seen a strong reaction by more than a few “traditionalists” who are troubled by our Pope’s choice. From the folks at the Rorate Coeli blog come comments like: “[T]he Holy Father is setting a very negative example.” “Pope Francis has managed to do more damage in 2 weeks than any Pope in the Church’s history.” “Everything he has done so far regarding the exterior signs of the Papacy would appear to be dismantling papal authority.”

The most troubling among them, to me, is this one from the same blog’s comment box:

I am a young, recently ordained priest. Tonight, I planned on preaching about the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood.

How can I speak about such things – the self-offering of Christ, the 12 viri selecti – when our Holy Father is witnessing to something different?

I feel like going up to the congregation and saying, “I don’t have any idea what the symbolism of the washing of the feet is. Why don’t we just all do what we want.”

How hard this is for young priests.

This sentiment, which I’m afraid is shared by other young priests this weekend, is a sign of a problem within the Church today that goes much deeper than one might at first think. It reveals the problem that lies hidden in the hyper-orthodoxy movement that is so strong today. I say this as one who sees the Church’s magisterium as a gift of God and who sees our recent popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, their lives and their ministry, as great gifts themselves.

I’d like to delve deeper into this here, and I will one of these days — probably after I work my way through two other larger projects currently in the works and needing completion. But suffice it to say, for now, that what many in recent years have suggested to be authentically orthodox Catholicism is not really that. There has been an inaccurate picture of the scope of Catholic doctrine on offer. In short, orthodox Catholic doctrine includes a lot more than some would have us believe.

We see this in the comment of the young priest above. I’m not talking about an understanding of liturgical rubrics as divinely revealed, but an understanding of the Holy Thursday rite of footwashing as being primarily or even exclusively about the sacrament of Holy Orders. This is distorted and just plain wrong, and it comes to us not from Catholic doctrine, but from a narrow and clericalized version of doctrine that in fact betrays authentic Catholic doctrine and the Gospel it presents.

Yes, I understand there are important links between Holy Thursday and the sacrament of Holy Orders. But to miss or ignore what the footwashing rite says about the love that each and every one of us are called to, by our vocation as followers of Christ, is to do violence to the Church’s liturgy and to the Gospel.

Our parish Holy Thursday Mass, the one I mentioned above, opened with the song “Here at This Table.” (It’s by Janet Sullivan Whitaker and Max Whitaker. Listen and read the lyrics are here.) The beautiful chorus of the song goes:

Come and be filled here at this table.
Food for all who hunger
and drink for all who thirst.
Drink of his love, wine of salvation.
You shall live forever in Jesus Christ the Lord.

As I sang it, I was moved by that last line as we repeated it several times: You shall live forever in Jesus Christ the Lord.

I thought: There it is, right there in the opening song of the first Mass of the Triduum, there is what these awesome days are all about — our living forever in Jesus Christ, the incredible work he did for our salvation that it might be so.

May our liturgy, our preaching, our living always make that Gospel radiantly clear to the world and never obscure or distort it.

(I’ve went on at length here, and I’ve revised this several times in the hopes that it makes sense, is doctrinally sound, and does not come off as a rant. What do you think?)

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One thought on “Pope Francis, washing feet, and Catholic orthodoxy

  1. By no means a young priest – ordained in 1975 – so belonging to the Vatican II/Paul VI generation of priests, I felt sad and angry at the young priests comment. Angry at his formators for failing to teach him the meaning of the Mandatum, sad that he is not inspired by the hope and joy that Pope Francis witnesses to, sad that he is not inspired by the simplicity and compassion that he embodies.
    Pope Francis’ addresses and homilies all come from the heart and seek to speak to the heart. Not wishing to push the comparison too far, but in Benedict XVI we had someone who seemed to wanted to be the Magisterium embodied, whereas in Pope Francis we meet the shepherd watch out for, looking over, seeking out his sheep so that they find their way into the fold.

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