One of the greatest barriers to true unity in our church is the propensity of Catholics to pick fights among themselves over seemingly trivial matters. The latest is the issue of whether priests should wash the feet of women during the Holy Thursday liturgy. Really? I don’t know whether to simply shake my head, or hang it in shame.
There is an old liturgical law that states only men should have their feet washed. The law was put in place at a time when women were excluded from the sanctuary. Some folks, of the more traditional mind-set, believe that this is still the right and just way to perform the ritual. For them, it is not so much a sign of service as a re-creation of the Last Supper. The disciples had their feet washed by Jesus. The disciples were men. Therefore priests should only wash the feet of men.
Enter, Pope Francis. Last year, during his first Holy Thursday as Pope, he trekked down to a Detention Centre for Youths and washed the feet of young people – including women and Muslims. The traditionalists were aghast. Progressive Catholics were over-joyed. Those who are sticklers of the law rationalized that, as pope, Francis has the right to over-ride the rules. But, the rules remain for the rest of us. Really???
This year Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison will wash the feet of twelve seminarians. He is also enforcing strict foot-washing guidelines in his diocese. Priests have two options: wash the feet of men, or dispense with the foot washing ritual all together.
What would Pope Francis do? Well, we already know what he is going to do. This year he is heading down to a centre for people with disabilities. The papal foot-washing will, again, be a concrete sign of compassion and service not merely a showy display of clericalism. And, it will be inclusive of women, men, and non-Christians.
Is this trivial? On the surface, yes. Yet, it is a sign of the deeper malaise in our Church. It shines a light on the idealogical divides that just won’t go away. Jesus had few kind words for legalistic pharisees in his day. I have even fewer for our own modern day pharisees.