21 January 2016
Christopher Lamb in Rome
Pope Francis washes his feet of traditional liturgists
“You will never wash my feet,” a shocked Simon Peter said when he saw Jesus with a basin of water and a robe. Even today the imitation of one of the most powerfully symbolic moments in Christ’s life has the power to scandalise.
Pope Francis has now asked that the foot-washing ceremony, which takes place during the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, can include women (a decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments was issued today to that effect).
There will, however, be many liturgical traditionalists left unhappy by this move. They were pretty outraged in 2013 when, soon after his election, Francis washed the feet of two women prisoners, including one Muslim during the Holy Thursday liturgy.
As Christ only washed the feet of his male disciples they argue the ceremony should copy that. The rubrics of Pope Pius XII, issued 1955, also state that only males should have their feet washed by priests. Now the Pope has widened participation to all “the People of God.” But what is the real reason traditionalists are unhappy?
Fr Paul Gunter OSB, secretary of the Department for Christian Life and Worship, told The Tablet in 2013 that: “Jesus performed the Washing of the Feet when he gave his mandatum to the 12 Apostles. Since the occasion was intrinsically attached to the institution of the priesthood, the gesture was not incomplete because of its not being extended to women.”
By extending the ceremony to women Francis is seen as allowing women to participate in Christ’s priesthood. In truth, the Vatican ruling is unlikely to have a major impact on parishes because many of them have been washing the feet of women for years. And when he was in Argentina Pope Francis regularly had female participants in his Holy Thursday liturgy.
What the Holy See has done is rubber stamp current practice. It also continues a trend in this papacy of upsetting traditionalists - those who like things done the way they always have.
But he doesn’t seem to mind. During his daily homily on Tuesday the Pope said “Christians who obstinately maintain ‘it’s always been done this way,’…they sin” adding: “the Christian who is obstinate sins!”
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