Different perspectives on changes in the Holy Thursday foot washing rite

Pope Francis has made a change to the Roman Missal officially permitting the washing of women's feet in the Holy Thursday ritual.

This is in many ways not a big deal. Many parishes in the United States and elsewhere have been doing this for years. Pope Francis was doing it in Argentina before he became pope. He has also been doing it since he has become pope. Francis has not only washed the feet of women, but also included Muslims in the ritual.

Elizabeth Elliott also points out that many have reacted to the news with something of a yawn. A number of pastors noted that their practice of washing the feet of women has been long standing. One described it as a nonissue, saying that the surprise for many will be the realization that not everyone was doing it.

Appropriately, others who had prohibited the practice, as the Bishop of Madison, Wisc., Robert Morlino, will now permit the practice in his diocese. Seminary Rector, Fr. Douglas Mosey makes perhaps the most important point. He says, "What Pope Francis is trying to express is that we need to wash the feet not only of men but of everybody because we're all foot washers."

Yet, there are still those who find this minor change disturbing. According to Elliott the perspective from the traditional blog Rorate Caeli makes a couple of points. The first is the concern that this change in practice will be seen as obligatory such as Communion in the hand, female altar servers, and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist have become.

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Finally, the blog notes that the new rubric stipulates that washing is still limited to the people of God. The commentary wonders if Pope Francis will still wash the feet of unbaptized women, criticizing his former washing of the feet of Muslims in his first Holy Thursday Mass.

What clearer contrast could be provided between a church limited by its own rules and a church seeking to minister to the people? Let me recommend to these traditionalists a few quotes from Pope Francis.

The changes mentioned have all been embraced by the People of God. Pope Francis said, "A pastoral presence means walking with the People of God ... especially, never to lose the scent of the People of God in order to find new roads."

It is not that certain innovations have become compulsory. It is that they have been found efficacious by the people of God.

In this country, at least, people by large margins prefer receiving Communion in the hand. Extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist have become an established practice in many parishes. All of these practices involve including the people of God in the liturgy and making all of us a part of the celebration of the Eucharist. Religion, after all, is for the benefit of the people, not for gatekeepers choosing to prevent people from receiving the blessings inherent in certain practices that are found meaningful.

Traditionalists don't get it. Religion is not about rules and rubrics. Pope Francis tells us, "Frequently we act as arbiters of grace rather than facilitators. But the church is not a tollhouse." Francis adds, "A church that only sees the little rules of behavior, of attitude, is a church that betrays her own identity."

Religion is not about hanging on to permanence or an unchanging institution. Pope Francis quotes Pope St. John XXIII who said, "We are not here to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life."

Pope Francis, instead, extols the importance of newness in the life of the church. He says, "Brother and sister, let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives."

He tells us that "God is not afraid of new things," and that we need to adapt to "changing conditions in society."

The ultimate affront is for the gatekeepers to lie in wait to critique Pope Francis if he should wash the feet of an unbaptized individual this coming Holy Thursday. The decree notes that anyone from the people of God can be selected for the rite. Isn't that another way of saying we need to wash everyone's feet? Aren't we in fact all part of the people of God?

The traditionalist notion seems so far from the spirit of the Gospel. It seems more closely aligned to the behavior of the Pharisees as described in the Gospels.

Finally, what does Jesus, himself say? From John 13, Jesus says as I "have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet." Jesus does not speak about apostles, men, women, or believers. Just as he says love one another, he says wash one another's feet.

Hopefully traditionalists will one day recognize that God is calling us to serve all people without exceptions. Perhaps, then, the church can truly become a beacon of God's love and mercy for the whole world.


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