So the Holy Father went and had the Congregation for Divine Worship decree a change in the liturgy. For most parishes, at least here in Western Europe, the change will be unnoticeable, as most have made it years or even decades ago. But does that mean it is a mere formality, a change on paper only?
^ Footwashing at St. Joseph’s cathedral in Groningen, last year.
Since 1955, the footwashing is a notable part of the liturgy of Maundy Thursday. The priest washes the feet of twelve men, in imitation of Jesus Christ’s washing of the feet of His disciples. As the new decree underlines, the rite revolves around the servitude of all those who wish to follow Christ, who came, after all, not to be served, but to serve. In the Gospel of John we read the following:
“Before the festival of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved those who were his in the world, loved them to the end.
They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot son of Simon, to betray him. Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ‘Never!’ said Peter. ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus replied, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said, ‘Well then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!’ Jesus said, ‘No one who has had a bath needs washing, such a person is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.’ He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said, ‘though not all of you are’.
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’, he said, ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you. In all truth I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, no messenger is greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know this, blessed are you if you behave accordingly.'”
The rite of the footwashing is in the first place exactly what Jesus tells us it is: an example for us to follow, in the context of the relation between servant and master. For the priest, who washes the feet of twelve faithful, this is especially poignant. As an alter Christus he is especially tasked to lead by serving, made tangible in this subservient act.
In the Roman missal the faithful whose feet are to be washed are described as ‘vir’, men. Although many priests have not felt called to limit the faithful they chose for the rite to be only men, others, who understand that the liturgy is not just a collection of symbolic rituals, have followed what the missal stipulates. Pope Francis has now removed the rule that only men’s feet are to be washed in the ritual, stating only that they must be chosen from among the People of God: the faithful community assembled for the liturgical ritual. So not only men, but also women and children.
Of course, the changes have been met with comments far and wide. Before delving into some of those, it should be noted that this is not an issue of dogma, and that the Holy Father is completely free to make such changes. There are those who are all too keen to take every chance to denounce Pope Francis, but this is not one. This is Papal authority in action.
I have seen some comments expressing surprise that there even are rules about such things, but also pride in having been ahead of the curve in including women in the footwashing. Apparently, those who know of what the missal stated, have not felt the urge to take it seriously and keep to the rubrics. I have to wonder what the liturgy is for some people: a collection of quaint rituals to be performed or not as mood or times dictate, or something given as a task to perform by the Church, a rite reflecting the divine liturgy, which can not be changed by individual priests or liturgy committees (a silly concept in itself) as they desire. It should be clear what my position is, which happens to be what the Church herself also teaches. I may like or dislike what the missal contains, but it is not mine to change. It is, however, the Pope’s to change (as long as the changes are not dogmatic). He has that authority.
Some have also chosen to see this change as having to do with a right that until now has been denied to women. It is not. As the decree explains, Pope Francis wanted this change to better reflect the full make-up of the People of God, who all share in this commandment of service: it is therefore not a right that until now has been denied to women, but a duty that they are equally called to perform. Pridefully boasting that this is an equal rights issue is simplistic and out of place.
On the other side of the debate, more conservative commentators have taken issue with the fact that a liturgical tradition has been altered. They say that the presence of only men at the footwashing is a reflection of the footwashing as performed by Jesus. He also only washed the feet of men: His disciples. In this way it better reflected the relation between Christ and His followers, and thus reminds the priest and faithful of what the priesthood is: a service in a context of authority. I have to wonder, however, of the ritual itself, even if it includes only men, succeeds in this. At least in my experience, catechesis makes more of a difference than the gender of those whose feet are washed. For most faithful present at the footwashing, the actual ritual is too short and too far away to be fully witnessed and taken in.
Others have wondered if this is really the most urgent liturgical change that was needed. Aren’t there liturgical abuses that need to be adressed first? Of course there are. I think of the complete lack of reference for or even understanding of Who we received in Holy Communion, to name but one. But a start needs to be made somewhere, and the fact that changs are made is more important than the order in which they take place.
In closing, I would like to comment on what some have wondered about the role of Cardinal Robert Sarah in this. As Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship he is the one who issued and signed the decree announcing the change. Pope Francis made the request for the change in late 2014. It took more than a year for the decree to be published. Did Cardinal Sarah delay it, because he disagreed with it? Or is it perhaps more likely that the cardinal, who had only arrived at the Congregation in November of 2014, needed the time first to familiarise himself with his new duties, had to clear a banklog of files which had built up in the three months between the departure of the previous Prefect, Cardinal Cañizares Llovera, and his own arrival? And add to that the fact that there are other files to deal with in the course of the normal work of the Congregation, and it seems that this is a more likely reason for the apparent delay than any alleged delaying actions out of a theoritical opposition to the Pope’s reforms.