I’ve Got the Cure for Your PTFWS* (*post-traumatic foot-washing syndrome)

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread and all, but since I am committed to the healing arts and it pains me to think that any of you are among those rending their garments over Pope Francis’ washing of women’s feet this past Holy Thursday, worried that this is just the first sign of the new Pope’s  hidden proto-feminist agenda and the imminent ordination of women bishops and subsequent ending of the world (curse you, Mayans!–the Pope is from South America, after all), I thought I would pass along an historical anecdote as a way of demonstrating that this really is nothing about which to get your wimple in a knot.  In fact, as far as I can tell, the matter was resolved almost 30 years ago by a Vatican decree–as if the Pope needed a decree to do something in the first place.    Now, before I share this,  I’ll  tell you up front that I will round file with extreme prejudice any obnoxious, anti-clerical, more-canonical-than-thou, liturgi-terroristic comments.  Likewise, I’m not spending my Easter break arguing with anyone–especially over this.  Thoughtful, substantive, respectful comments, as always, are welcome.  With that, read on…

Once upon a time, back in 1985, I was in the seminary for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. The newly installed, then, Bishop Bevilacqua (later, the now-infamous  and recently deceased, Philly Cardinal) was both a canon and civil lawyer.  He was a stickler for details and not exactly a people-person, bless his heart.  Anyhoo, he rankled the diocesan women by refusing to wash their feet on Holy Thursday and ordering all the priests of the diocese to do the same. HUGE outcry. You’ve never seen so much anguish. Protests outside St Paul’s Cathedral for weeks. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  We seminarians were actually booed walking into the Cathedral at one point.  It was like Bishop Herod was killing the city’s children. In his defense, the bishop pointed out that the latin translation of the rules regarding the Holy Thursday liturgy said that the feet of 12 “viri” (men) should be washed–and anyway, the entire rite is optional so what was all the fuss about? Long story short, after even more histrionics, clarification was requested of the Vatican which later that year said that it was fine to wash women’s feet. Specifically, the Vatican said that,  in this case, it was fine to translate “viri” in the more general sense  of “men” meaning “persons”  (as in, “Jesus died for all men”–i.e., not just dudes, chicks too).    Bevilacqua lifted his ban the following year. The feet of the women of “the Burgh” didn’t have to stink anymore (well, not as much at least) the Bishop made a healthy breakfast of the egg on his face.  People went on to being petty about other things.

You may make of this what you will.  I only share it because part of my job as a therapist is to check people’s reality.  Consider your liturgical reality checked.  Nothing to see here folks.  Old news.  Now, go back to rejoicing in the fact that the Lord is risen, he is risen indeed!  Alleluia, Alleluia!

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • midwestlady

    Yeah, I don’t get this either. Mixed sex foot-washing on Thursday of Holy Week been going on for like 25 years around where I live. Are they looking for something to yell about? I don’t know.

  • http://www.catholicap.com Kim Cameron-Smith

    For heavens sake. As a revert, it’s just this sort of thing that disappoints me in believers. There were women around Jesus at the Last Supper, so it’s quite possible he washed women’s feet, I don’t know. My parish washes the feet of the both men and women. If people get their knickers in a twist over these small details, it has a slight pharisean (is that a word?) tone to me — focusing so much on the letter of the law that we forget to love each other.

  • http://www.canonlaw.info Ed Peters

    Those many who are concerned about the example set by Francis’ action do not all assume it’s a prelude to women’s ordination, nor do we (or I, at any rate) appreciate a patronizing pat on the head before being treated to a completely wrong explanation of what terms mean in Latin or how law is to be interpreted in the Church, esp. by folks who would or do admit they know little about either and then blithely proceed to do both. But my job is not to explain why law is important in the Church; instead I focus on explaining what the law is. Folks can make of the law what they will, but they can’t make up the law. There is more information here: http://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/. And I stress, there is information there, not feelings.

    • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

      Hello Ed,

      Let me say that I have profound respect for your work and your opinions. As you know, I have consulted you in the past on small canonical matters and you have always been very thoughtful and thorough in your replies. That said, I was unaware that you were one of the Pope’s critics. Frankly, I’m a little surprised, but be that as it may, since I was unaware that you were criticizing the Pope’s actions, I was obviously not addressing you. Specifically, I was addressing those people who were even more uninformed than me–and I never made any claims to being informed–having histrionic hissy fits about exactly what I wrote.

      I would never presume to lecture you on canon law, and I would never attempt to engage you in a battle on these grounds. I’m sad that you chose to take my comments personally. If I had intended to call you out, I would have named you directly as I don’t believe in being passive aggressive. That said, most of what I have read from the Pope’s critics on this matter has been pretty appalling both in tone and quality and I was responding to that–not you. I will be happy to read your posts and I will consider myself better off for it. Even so, since the story I related is true and happenned just as I said it did, there must be some precedent that is relevant and should be considered I’m sure that even when that is the case, there is room for great legal minds to disagree, but I will leave that to you.

      The bottom line, for me, is that the Pope has acted. I have always considered myself “the Pope’s man” as it were, and I will always do my best to view the actions of any Pope in the most charitable light possible. I know that you feel similarly, and so I bow to your professional wisdom even as I continue to wonder how your thoughts can be reconciled with the story I related and know to be true from my personal experience. I thank you for taking the time to write.


      • http://www.canonlaw.info Ed Peters

        From one Dr. P to another, much appreciated. There is a great line in the film “Separate Tables” perhaps you know it: “The trouble with being in the right, as one sees the right, is that one must often defend one’s views in the presence of such very questionable allies.” I think of that line often. Many of those pointing out the real problems with Francis’ action find ourselves being tarred with brushes aimed at, rightly, some nutties out there who think the world has fallen in. My point is more measured, but you, for one, see that now, as I figured you would when it came to your attention. Blessed Eastertide. edp.