The only people I’ve felt some sympathy for in the Great Foot-Washing Nutty have been priests who have written me saying, “Now what am I supposed to tell the people in the parish who view the washing of the feet as some sort of political platform for ‘making a statement’ about women’s ordination and Fighting the Patriarchy and all that?”
I’m no pastor, but I can tell you, as a layperson out in the pew what *I’d* love to hear. I’d love to hear a priest use this as a teaching moment (since that is what the foot-washing is ordered toward: teaching, not dispensing sacramental grace) and make clear both the various meanings inherent in this polyvalent gesture *and* a discussion of the meaning Pope Francis was emphasizing *and* make clear (since Holy Thursday *is* all about the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood) how many light years Francis’ gesture was from trying to reinforce American culture war and gender politics dynamics. That would be golden for me.
Here’s how: First look at the text of John:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. 5* Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. 6 He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” 8* Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, * but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11* For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “You are not all clean.” 12 When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15* For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16* Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant * is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17* If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
There is no single “meaning” to this text (which is typical for the incredibly rich writing of John). There are lots of meanings. It’s a text about baptism. It’s a text about how the priest is to live. It’s a text about the demand for all disciples of Jesus (not just priests) to be servants of all. It was this last point that Francis was making, and he was perfectly within his rights to do so, which you can point out just as canonist Pete Vere does:
“Can. 26 Unless the competent legislator has specifically approved it, a custom contrary to the canon law now in force or one beyond a canonical law (praeter legem canonicam) obtains the force of law only if it has been legitimately observed for thirty continuous and complete years. Only a centenary or immemorial custom, however, can prevail against a canonical law which contains a clause prohibiting future customs.”
1 – As the Church’s Supreme Legislator, Pope Francis is a competent legislator.
2 – The practice of broadening the pool of candidates for foot washing had been a counter-custom.
3 – In observing the counter-custom, Pope Francis has obviously specifically approved it by his actions.
Something I should clarify, since I have donned my canonical hat, is that no priest or bishop is bound to observe the counter-custom just because the Pope has done so. The previous rubric remains in place unless and until Pope Francis decides to change it. His observance of the counter-custom simply means that the counter-custom is now lawful to observe should a priest or bishop opt to do so. Again, this is the broad Roman legal mentality.
Note that last point. If you have women’s ordination guerillas in your parish, don’t avoid this opportunity, seize it. Make clear that *because* Francis was pointing to the need to be a servant, he was miles away from all talk of the priesthood as a position of power. Point out that those who speak of the priesthood as a civil right are conceiving of it entirely in terms of an earthly struggle for power and therefore are not really understanding what it is: a gift given to the Church in service of the Eucharist and of the people of God, not a platform for power struggles. Note as well that, because you are under obedience to your bishop, the fact that the Pope has altered the rubrics in his own case does not mean he has altered them for you till your bishop okays it. Why can he do that? Because he’s pope and you are not.
And if your bishop has approved the change in your diocese by next Holy Thursday, you can still celebrate Holy Thursday however it pleases you (unless, of course, your bishop *mandates* that you include women in the rite).
I know it’s a pain for a busy pastor, but I think this is a teaching opportunity. Thanks for all your hard work for us, padres!