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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Papal Foot Washing Controversy

pope francis feet

Liturgical traditionalists are increasingly expressing their dismay with the new Pope. They shutter in horror at online videos of his time as an Archbishop with his Misa de Ninos featuring dialogue with children, clapping and life-sized puppets.

Now, critics are decrying his washing the feet of youth at a retention facility, and among these are young women, one of whom was a Muslim.

A directive from the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1988 specified that “the washing of the feet of chosen men … represents the service and charity of Christ, who came ‘not to be served, but to serve.’” The rule in the West is that only the feet of men can be washed, with an associated sacramental meaning pointing to the priesthood of the apostles.

The current law does allow local bishops to dispense from the law, as is done here in the Archdiocese of Washington, and some are suggesting that the Pope merely acted as the Bishop or Patriarch of Rome and not as the universal shepherd. However, the papacy is not like a hat that one can put on or take off with ease. The Pope is the Roman Rite. The late Pope John Paul II regularly broke the rubric about raising the host over the paten, preferring the chalice instead. Now it is a legitimate option in the Roman Missal. We might not like it, but the Pope has indeed called into question the rubric regarding the washing of the feet. However, as an optional rite, I would not see it as a genuine cause for controversy. Further, while associated with the priesthood, certain Church fathers, like St. Augustine connected the ritual instead to Christian baptism. It may be that this somewhat suppressed tradition is again breaking the surface.

Having said this, what are we to make “theologically” of Pope Francis washing the feet of a Muslim girl? The solution comes with the Pope’s own words, if only we will listen. He says, “This is a symbol, it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service. …Don’t lose hope, understand? With hope you can always go on.” When a boy asked why he had visited them, he simply responded that it was to “help me to be humble, as a bishop should be.” Pope Francis said this visit and the ceremonial gesture emerged “from my heart. Things from the heart don’t have an explanation.”

I suspect the Pope is expressing a theme which emerges immediately from the Scriptures. The one who would lead must be the servant of all. Our Lord did not minister only to Jews but to all who came to him. So too, in these perilous days, must the papacy be a vehicle for peace and charity in a world mad with intolerance and greed.

Liturgical traditionalists often celebrate beautiful liturgies. But dialogue with them is frequently difficult. The issue is deeper than anti-Semitism, but a belligerence with any and all, inside or outside the Church who disagree with them. The most rigid among them desire more than a place of their own in the universal Church; rather, they demand that all others surrender their places to them. This will not happen. Some of the traditionalists like the SSPX will probably not be coming home. The rhetoric will get nastier. The longer they remain juridically distinct, the more Sedevacantism will take hold.  The breakaway traditionalists really do not recognize either the priesthood or the Mass of what they call the Novus Ordo. Indeed, the use the term “Novus Ordo” as if it were a derogatory slur. If they did not like Pope Benedict XVI then the proverbial writing was certainly on the wall with Pope Francis. The washing of the feet on Holy Thursday has renewed cries of modernism on one side and the defense of his humility and simplicity on the other.

Here are a few of the messages I have received:

“If the SSPX are upset then it is entirely their fault. They could have regularized and bishops and maybe even an additional Cardinal or two from their alliance could have been added to the mix. Standing outside they forfeited their voice. Pope Benedict tried to help them, now they deserve what they get!”

“The SSPX can complain but refused to be part of the solution to liturgical abuses and excess. Maybe this is the Holy Spirit’s way of pushing their noses into what they see as a mess.”

“Did Jesus wash the feet of Catholics or Jews?”

“Who does this guy think he is? Oh wait, he is the Pope. Okay, I guess he can do as he pleases.”

“Some of you talk as if the SSPX were really part of the Church. They go through the motions, but have no standing and no say. They do not represent a legitimate option. Pope Francis is the Pope. Get used to it!”

“Could it be that this Pope Francis is what God wants and that we traditionalists have been wrong from the start?”

“Do you think the Pope was set up and someone slipped this Mohammedan gal into the mix without him knowing?”

“This Pope has taken the name of a deacon, not a priest. He has embraced the mendicant Francis. He is on the record that the Church should be reduced to poverty. Priests get ready to see your rectories exchanged for roach-filled apartments and bus tickets for the cars you once owned. Here is a man who takes seriously the charge of Jesus to the rich man!”

“One of the boys at the feet washing had a foot covered in gang-related and possibly obscene tattoos. I can see that photograph being splashed around the world. Here is the Vicar of Christ, bowing down and kissing the foot of a vulgar criminal. This makes me so mad. There hasn’t been something as scandalous as this since Jesus allowed his feet to be washed and dried in a prostitute’s hair!”

“This matter of the new Pope has merely unveiled the unyielding disobedience and disrespect that has been hiding behind traditionalist intransigence all along!”