Another way to wash feet

…the Triduum liturgies…together form one complete story of the Paschal Mystery—the mystery of the Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. These several events of the one mystery constitute our redemption, God’s claiming us back for himself.

Claiming back from what? Eternal death as the inevitable result of our sins. Claiming back from whom? There is a strong element of the tradition that would say the Devil, by whose influence and temptation we first sinned. But more deeply we are being redeemed from our own hopeless self-government, our inability to live the good life as we want to do, as we should do, as God has made us to do. We are being redeemed from ourselves. Redemption offers us the only sure hope of salvation, eternal life with God, which is what we were made for, and makes sense of the mystery of our existence…

The name of this Mass reminds us of a truth too often forgotten today. The Mass is more than a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Only tonight is that aspect really emphasized. The Mass is first and foremost, above all and essentially, a sacrifice. It is the memorial of Christ’s self-sacrifice, of his body and life, for us and our salvation, on the Cross. Tonight Christ bequeaths us his sacrificial body sacramentally, veiled in bread and wine. The ancient principle was that those who offered a sacrifice then received the fruits and benefit of the sacrifice by consuming some of what had been sacrificed, as a way of being united with the sacrifice. It is the same principle in the Mass: Christ calls us to offer with him his self-sacrifice, to be united with and in it by consuming what was sacrificed, his body and blood. By using bread and wine as the outer veil for the inner reality we are able to partake of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross time after time, and again and again. The Mass, therefore, is a memorial of the Cross, not of itself.

But why did our Lord choose bread and wine as the veil for his body and blood? Both bread and wine are able to symbolize a multitude of people being unified, through suffering, to form a new creation. Bread is the new creation of many grains of wheat being ground and crushed in a mill and baked in a furnace. Wine is the new creation of many grapes being crushed underfoot and laid for some time in the coffin of the case in the dark tomb of the cellar. By Christ’s death and resurrection he makes a multitude of people, through his sacrificial body and blood veiled by what appears as bread and wine, into a new creation, into his body the Church, the community of salvation, made fit for heaven.

To enable all this, Christ did two other things in the upper room on that first Maundy Thursday. He ordained the first priests—the apostles—to be the ministers of this new but eternal sacrifice. He sets them apart to offer the new Passover sacrifice for the benefit of all disciples, whenever and wherever they may be. Secondly, he showed that the essence of this new sacrifice is that it is a self-sacrifice. We are not offering lambs anymore; we are co-offering Christ’s self-sacrifice. We do it in two vital and necessary ways: we offer the bread and wine to become Christ’s body and blood offered on the Cross—that is the sacramental way. But there is also what we might call an existential way, a daily-life way: by giving ourselves, sacrificing ourselves, in service of our neighbour, obeying the new commandment to love our neighbour as Christ loves us. 

That is what Christ’s washing of the apostles’ feet is all about. Christians share in Christ’s redemptive self-sacrifice both by the sacrament and by our way of life. Life and sacrament cannot be isolated and compartmentalized; they form a unity. That is why the Church warns those who are in unreconciled serious sin not to receive the Lord’s Body; they need to restore the communion between their living and their faith before they can ever contribute to or benefit from communion with the Lord in his Body.

So this Mass of the Lord’s Supper tonight is indeed a thanksgiving: giving thanks for the self-sacrifice of Christ for us on the Cross; giving thanks for allowing us to share in his saving sacrifice through the gift of the Eucharist; giving thanks for endowing the Church with priestly ministers to enable this sharing in the Eucharist till the end of time; and giving thanks that Christ has left us a simple, if rarely easy, way of living in unity with his sacrifice, by our acts of love.

[For various reasons] it was agreed in planning not to include the option of the washing of the feet this year. In its place, let us take a moment to identify those whose feet we need metaphorically to wash, those before whom we need to humble ourselves, those whose forgiveness we need to receive, those who need to receive our forgiveness, those for whom we need to do more by acts of love, self-sacrificial, painful but healing love. Let us in silence call them to mind, pray for them and resolve to find some way soon to “wash their feet.”

There was too little time today, and now I have too little energy, to write a reflection for today’s high feast. So, for your penance and to assist your increase in merit, I inflict upon you the bulk of the homily pretty much as I inflicted upon the parishioners of Scarisbrick tonight. If something in it helps you, Deo gratias.

A blessed Triduum to you all!

Detail of the Maundy chasuble at St Elizabeth’s, Scarisbrick.

Maundy Thursday: The Washing of Feet, Priesthood & an Ecumenical Imperative

Over at Fr Hunwicke’s Mutual Enrichment, the good Father gives us a salutary refresher course in the real meaning of the washing of feet—what he terms the pedilavium in literal translation, but what we more commonly refer to as the Mandatum, the commandment. Or rather, he offers several meanings—for footwashing as a more general symbolic act such as king to his subjects; as a liturgical act within fairly strictly limited parameters such as an abbot with his monks; and (a relative novelty in the liturgical context) as a symbolic act of mercy and welcome to all, especially the marginalized, which is the only way to explain decently his allowing women’s feet to be washed on Maundy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

For what Fr Hunwicke rightly reminds his readers is that in its original context—Jesus at the Last Supper—the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday has a very particular meaning. The Lord Jesus did not wash the feet of his disciples per se, of whom there were many even then, though soon they would mostly melt away till after the Resurrection. Jesus washed the feet of the Twelve, the apostles including Judas Iscariot who Jesus knew was about to betray him (cf John 13). Jesus was in the upper room with his intimate circle, those (save for Judas who was about to break communion) whom he would shortly commission and send forth into the world to preach the Good News and repentance (for this is what the Greek word apostolos means, one who is sent with a message). Continue reading “Maundy Thursday: The Washing of Feet, Priesthood & an Ecumenical Imperative”

Update on Tablet letter

It seems that while my letter to The Tablet was not printed, it has been included in the journal’s online Letters Extra page. I know this because the abbey has received some hate mail about it (hate is too strong a word, but you get my drift).

The email in question was remarkable in seeming to have nothing to do with my letter at all. To refresh your memory, my letter went thus:

It seems to be the spirit of the time to return to old simplicities, and many of your correspondents last week (Letters, 20 April) seemed intent on reviving the ancient simplicity of slaying the bearer of unwelcome tidings.

In addressing a clarification issued by my confrère, Fr Paul Gunter OSB, in his capacity as Secretary of the Bishops’ Department for Christian Life & Worship, they gave the impression that they saw Fr Gunter as peddling his own personal opinions. In fact he was doing his official duty in reminding the clergy of the pertinent facts and liturgical laws as they stand with regard to the optional rite of mandatum on Maundy Thursday. These are laws which Fr Gunter has not the power to change. Those who object to them would better serve their cause, and charity, by addressing their complaints to the Holy See.

One point raised against him merits particular attention. Fr Jim Lawlor asks Fr Gunter why “restorationists” allow themselves to see as exemplary the liturgical practice of Benedict XVI, yet refuse to allow Pope Francis’ liturgical praxis to be likewise exemplary.

Surely the answer is clear with but a moment’s reflection. Benedict XVI retrieved legitimate elements of Catholic liturgical tradition to enrich the celebration of the modern liturgy in accord with its proper laws and theology. Pope Francis’ mandatum contravened both current liturgical law and its theology. As pope, Francis has the power to dispense himself from such laws ad hoc. This dispensation does not extend to the rest of the Church.

It may be that Pope Francis will change the theology and rubrics of the mandatum. Until he does, however, priests are obliged to celebrate the Church’s liturgy in its integrity and not their personal versions of it. To the best of my memory neither Vatican II, nor the subsequent reform of the liturgy, gave priests a mandate to do whatever they want in the liturgy.

Here is the email received by the abbey’s central email address:

re your letter in The Tablet

Thankfully, women and men have had their feet washed over decades in the parishes I’ve attended throughout the country – certainly all my adult life and I’m in my mid-50s!

I realise that over a thousand years ago people thought that women were the result of imperfect seeds, such as a damp wind, but times have moved on. We are not sub-standard human beings but full members of humanity and equal, co-creators.

The Church will get there one day. It just takes a bit of time (eg Gallileo).

She (who shall remain unnamed) implicitly accuses me of misogyny in deciding that I need to be reminded that women are “not sub-standard human beings but full members of humanity and equal, co-creators” (though I ask myself if any human person can be called a “co-creator“). How she can base that on what I wrote is truly beyond me.

Of course, the issue is not about me at all. It is all about her. And that is where this sort of irrational, emotive and often hysterical line of argument emerges from. Liturgy – and morality – have become all about what makes “me” feel good and not what rightly honours God in our lives and our worship, nor what is faithful to the essential meaning and symbolism of theology and liturgy.

To be perfectly honest, to argue like this against what I did not write but merely to vent her unreasoning self-obsession only makes me more and more convinced that the Church is right (not that I need convincing).

PS Some credit should be given to The Tablet for allowing unprinted letters still to be seen, if by potentially a smaller readership.

The Tablet, and the English bishops: whom do they serve?

Last week in The Tablet the Letters pages were opened to what we were meant to see as a flood of complaints about the statement made by my confrère, Fr Paul Gunter OSB, in his capacity as Secretary of the English Bishops’ Department of Christian Life & Worship. Quoted in the previous edition of The Tablet, he had clarified the status of Pope Francis’ setting aside Church law on reserving the mandatum on Maundy Thursday to males, explaining the reasons behind the law and also why Pope Francis’ actions do not licence clergy to a similar liberty. So he was doing his job.

The gushing stream of outrage from The Tablet’s correspondents was directed at Fr Paul, as if he were imposing his personal opinion on us all. The usual arguments of an emotive, “pastoral” nature were employed. Now Fr Paul is well able to defend himself, and his terse but apposite response has been printed in the latest edition. But I felt it necessary for several reasons, to write in support of Fr Paul for doing his job. My letter has not been printed. I am not surprised. Here is what I wrote:

It seems to be the spirit of the time to return to old simplicities, and many of your correspondents last week (Letters, 20 April) seemed intent on reviving the ancient simplicity of slaying the bearer of unwelcome tidings.

In addressing a clarification issued by my confrère, Fr Paul Gunter OSB, in his capacity as Secretary of the Bishops’ Department for Christian Life & Worship, they gave the impression that they saw Fr Gunter as peddling his own personal opinions. In fact he was doing his official duty in reminding the clergy of the pertinent facts and liturgical laws as they stand with regard to the optional rite of mandatum on Maundy Thursday. These are laws which Fr Gunter has not the power to change. Those who object to them would better serve their cause, and charity, by addressing their complaints to the Holy See.

One point raised against him merits particular attention. Fr Jim Lawlor asks Fr Gunter why “restorationists” allow themselves to see as exemplary the liturgical practice of Benedict XVI, yet refuse to allow Pope Francis’ liturgical praxis to be likewise exemplary.

Surely the answer is clear with but a moment’s reflection. Benedict XVI retrieved legitimate elements of Catholic liturgical tradition to enrich the celebration of the modern liturgy in accord with its proper laws and theology. Pope Francis’ mandatum contravened both current liturgical law and its theology. As pope, Francis has the power to dispense himself from such laws ad hoc. This dispensation does not extend to the rest of the Church.

It may be that Pope Francis will change the theology and rubrics of the mandatum. Until he does, however, priests are obliged to celebrate the Church’s liturgy in its integrity and not their personal versions of it. To the best of my memory neither Vatican II, nor the subsequent reform of the liturgy, gave priests a mandate to do whatever they want in the liturgy.

What is of particular interest to me is that only one letter has been included in the latest Tablet on the subject, Fr Paul’s own reply in his official capacity. To the casual reader the impression might be that a flood of outrage against Fr Paul was received at The Tablet but only a few dribbles in support of him. This is a classic propaganda technique. This impression seems confirmed in another regard, namely Cardinal Schönborn’s recent talk in London, which has been mischievously used by some to convey the impression he supports same-sex civil unions. In last week’s Tablet there was only one letter printed that countered this impression, and that too was a letter from an official of Cardinal Schönborn’s Vienna diocese. Yet I know that at least one other letter was sent in the same vein, by a layman prominent in the City, who wrote in a balanced and reasoned way. His letter was not published.

So, the orthodox line is reduced to representation only by officials; the liberal line (to give it a generous label) is open to clergy and laity in any quantity. So, you can see the propaganda technique here: only officials push the Church’s line – the clergy and laity want change! One thing gives me some cheer though: the vast majority of active young Catholics do not read this quasi-Anglican journal. This does not augur well for the future of The Tablet. Its only hope is to come out of the closet and proclaim its allegiance to Anglicanism, which it serves so well. This should preserve its life a few more years.

The English bishops, too, seem to be serving something/someone other than the Church. It is reported that the General Secretary of the bishops’ conference, speaking on behalf of its president Archbishop Nichols, has assured lawmakers that in the case of a mixed royal marriage the children do not need to be brought up Catholic. Royals are dispensed where commoners are not. There is a long history of making concessions to royalty, so there is no real surprise here. It is being painted as a “pastoral” approach. But it raises two points in my mind:

(1) Do the bishops believe that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life”; and if so, do they agree with Pope Francis when he preached a few days ago that Jesus cannot be found outside the Church? If so, how can they in good conscience deny royal children born to a Catholic parent the right to find Jesus in his Body the Church? Surely the only truly “pastoral” approach is one that leads to Jesus where he is truly to be found. Unless, of course, you believe that all the churches are basically equal…

(2) As a strategic tactic it is appallingly inept. Just when lawmakers are openly proposing the removal of the infamous bar on heirs to the throne marrying Catholics, the bishops are surrendering the obligation for a Catholic spouse to raise children as Catholics precisely at the moment when there is absolutely no need to do so. In fact, the Church should be keeping up the pressure by insisting on the obligation for Catholic royals just as it insists on it for every other Catholic. The bishops seem intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Tablet, the English bishops – whom do they serve? Jesus and his Church? That seems an increasingly difficult position to argue.

Is the Pope infallible?

The Sacred Triduum is over, the voice is recovering, the dust is settling more serenely again in the abbey church and in the sacristy, the oil has dried on the confirmandi, a friend’s welcome fleeting visit is now a pleasant memory, and the internet here is actually working today, so it seems timely to post.

Though it is a dreaded moment in many respects. The busy-ness of our Triduum has proved a welcome distraction from the Triduum as it unfolded in Rome. For in many ways the passing glances I directed Romewards dismayed me. No need to tell you why: the blogosphere has been abuzz with reactions to the papal Maundy Thursday Mass and mandatum in the juvenile penitentiary. What was there to react to? one might ask if still unaware of what transpired.


The very choice of location was both inspiring and dismaying. A juvenile prison is an apt place to find a Catholic pastor, even its Supreme Pastor. It was a striking reminder to us not to forget those at the margins of society and so easily forgotten, not least those young enough to be re-aligned to the right path in life. It was a striking reminder that Christ came to call sinners to repentance not to chill out with the saints, just as a doctor exists for the sick more than the healthy. That was inspiring  – to see a pope wash prisoners’ feet. But to go there for Maundy Thursday and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper may be inspiring, but it is also problematic.

Whether he like it or not, Francis is Bishop of Rome, as he consistently reminds us; but for that very reason he is also pope. He is successor to Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and so is Supreme Pastor of the universal Church. A pope’s role is not confined to the diocese of Rome, but encompasses, with varying degrees of intensity and activity, all the Church. It is possible to be a good Catholic without ever seeing the pope; it is not possible to be one without acknowledging his authority. Likewise, it is impossible to be a good pope without acknowledging ultimate earthly responsibility for the universal Church, whose servant the pope is.

So this brings us to why Pope Francis’ Maundy Thursday evening was dismaying. He was not available to all the Church as he normally would be. His Mass was not, in any real sense, public, but private in the way Neo-Catechumenate liturgies are private: open only to a privileged few. There was no live coverage, and few photos (for obvious reasons of prison security and juvenile prisoner privacy). No one could have just walked in to attend the Mass, nor could anyone get a ticket for it. Even if one were to argue that such visibility to the universal Church is the recent product of modern technology, it still fails on a diocesan level. As Bishop of Rome Pope Francis did not lead his diocese in worship in one of the most important Masses for any diocese, one which celebrates the inauguration not only of the Blessed Eucharist, but of the ministerial priesthood. He was not available to his diocese even as he has been restricting his reference to his ministry to “Bishop of Rome”. The argument that he had not yet taken possession of his cathedral (which I have been wielding in his defence) is a thin one: normally a new pope takes possession of the Lateran basilica within a few days of his inauguration. And he had three other basilicas to use!

It smacks of the the Jesuit preferential option for the poor. That in itself can be a noble posture. But it suits better a more unfettered Jesuit than a bishop, whose preferential option really must be for his diocese, and all its members. And it should be remembered that both Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II said Mass in the very same prison, though on days when they were free to celebrate anywhere, not on days when they were obliged to lead the worship in their cathedrals.

Christ ordains his disciples and washes their feet

The second point of dismay was his performance of the mandatum, the washing of the feet. He washed the feet of two girls, and among the 12 sets of young feet he washed there were also two Muslims. It made a wonderful photo opportunity, and the idea of a pope washing their feet is indeed a lovely one. But it is a disturbing one in this context. As argued on this blog just before Maundy Thursday (in anguished anticipation of what came to pass), the mandatum  – in the context of the Maundy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper – is ordered to ordination. Christ has just ordained his closest disciples to the apostolic ministry and the priesthood of the New Covenant, as his messengers and ambassadors. He then washes their feet to model for them how their apostolic, priestly ministry is to be exercised:

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:12-17, ESV)

As it happens, the current Roman Catholic practice of performing the mandatum in parishes, even when restricted as it is to men, seem anamolous. Byzantine Catholics and the Orthodox restrict it to bishops washing the feet of 12 of their own priests. This, in fact, is the ideal way to commemorate the mandatum in its context of Maundy Thursday. It is possible, naturally, to perform the mandatum, outside the context of Maundy Thursday. In this freer context Pope Francis could wash anyone’s feet, man or woman, Catholic or not, and in a far more public way. Indeed, as if to prove there is nothing new under the sun, “In the latter half of the twelfth century the pope washed the feet of twelve sub-deacons after his Mass and of thirteen poor men after his dinner” (Catholic Encyclopaedia). Could not Pope Francis follow this fine tradition?

Instead of choosing a context outside of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Pope Francis has lamentably broken the clear liturgical law that only men’s (viri) feet may be washed, and needless to say, these men should be Catholic. While the symbolic association of the mandatum with ordination at this Mass is an ancient tradition, it does not have the force of dogma. It is reformable. Pope Francis could have decreed that henceforth the mandatum were to be seen not as related to ordination, but to the lives of all who are admitted to receive from the altar of the Eucharist. Then, having abrogated the rubrics currently in force, he could legitimately have washed the feet of all and sundry, and been setting an unimpeachable example. Instead, he has set an example of breaking liturgical law without batting an eyelid or offering a justification for breaking the Church’s laws. Even our Lord explained why he broke Jewish traditions (though I think the comparison with our Lord in this context is at best strained, and more likely plain invalid). A prominent canonist has argued along this lines from a canonical standpoint.

Christ wahes the feet of those whom he has just ordained

What made matters worse was the ham-fisted attempt by the Vatican Press Office to justify the Pope’s actions after the event. You can read the statement and an analysis of it by Fr Z. In short the VPO attempted to argue that because the community was small and included women, and that majority would not have understood the traditional and legal way of performing the mandatum, then it was justifiable to do as Pope Francis did for these pastoral reasons. But our canonist unravels this line of argument very quickly and comprehensively: whether the gathering is large or small, the same legal principles apply – they are not determined by there mere size of a congregation; nor do principles only apply when everyone understands them fully; and that the dichotomy many try to erect between law and love, legalism and Christian liberty, is a false and dangerous one.

In the final analysis, for all its powerful symbolism of recognition of society’s marginalised, the actions of Pope Francis had other effects and consequences, ones which are disturbing. One is that he effectively teaches that liturgy can be crafted and shaped ad hoc according to perceived didactic needs: the Mass as a teaching tool, and as belonging to each congregation. However, as the Church has always taught, the Mass is the property not a local community but the universal Church. It is by the common celebration of one liturgy (including its legitimate options) that the various local churches manifest their unity with each other and the universal Church. They do as the whole Church does, not as each would like to do any any given day.

Equally disturbingly perhaps, his actions suggest to the theologically untrained that the Pope is above the law of the Church, and that as Supreme Pastor he can do as he likes. But he most certainly cannot. He is bound to uphold in word and deed the dogmatic decrees of the ecumenical councils and previous popes, the content of divine revelation, and the nature of the Church itself. It is this necessity that lay behind Bl John Paul II’s decree on the question of whether women could be ordained, in which he said

in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

Since the Church has no authority to ordain women, Pope John Paul II was similarly bound to accept that limitation (as is every pope after him). He had no authority to change it. Popes are infallible only in a strictly defined set of circumstances, pertaining to matters of faith and morals. Otherwise popes can, and have been, very fallible even in their Church governance. If they were not, how could so many saints in history (like St Catherine of Siena) have criticized them as the need arose? Yet, whether they speak infallibly or not, popes must be taken seriously in what they do and say. They cannot be lightly ignored. But sometimes they do get things wrong in the lower order of affairs. Lower or not, these can still be disruptive and unsettling. The pope is the Church’s supreme lawmaker, but he is not thereby above the law. He might change a law, but until he does so he is no less bound by it than we are, despite what some prominent Catholic commentators might say to the press.

In his defence, Pope Francis is acting a way consistent with his practice as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. He is not suddenly playing to the cameras now that he has the international spotlight. What he must remember, though, is that he is no longer in Buenos Aires, but is Bishop of Rome, and the rules are very different now. He is even less free now to do as he pleases. All his actions must be ordered, first and foremost, to the ultimate good of the Church, and that ultimate good lies in heaven, not on earth.

Let us pray for Pope Francis that he righteous zeal might be more discerningly directed. And may God forgive my presumption.

Pontifications,prognostications and provocations

On the brink of the Triduum, Pope Francis has barely had time to crease his papal whites. Yet he continues to startle, confound or inspire, depending on the day and from which angle you come. Some things he is yet to decide, not least his new,and eagerly awaited, major curial appointments. He has no need to rush these, and it would be a(nother!) surprise if he makes these appointments before Easter.

Maundy Thursday

There are some decisions he has made, and these are, perhaps in the Chinese sense, interesting. The first regards the Triduum. Pope Francis has decided to celebrate Maundy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper not at his cathedral, St John Lateran, but at Casa del Marmo Penitential Institute for Minors. What is of note is not that a Pope is celebrating Mass in a juvenile prison. In fact Benedict XVI said Mass in the same prison in Lent 2007, preaching on the prodigal son. What is a striking departure is that a pope will be celebrating one of the principal liturgies of the Triduum outside his principal basilicas, in this case his own cathedral.

His decision leaves me in two minds. On the one hand his gesture makes a statement about the value of those whom society (and Church?) so easily forgets, except perhaps to condemn them. By celebrating the Maundy Thursday evening Mass in the prison he gives it even greater prominence than a Lenten Mass like Benedict’s, and a powerful reminder of Christ’s seeking out the lost is put before Church and world. Amen to that!

On the other hand, as pope, Francis does not have a totally free hand. There are expectations of him deriving from the petrine office itself, and from his being Bishop of Rome. Bishops have cathedrals, the mother churches of their dioceses. Moreover, the Bishop of Rome’s cathedral is St John Lateran, which is considered the mother of all churches. In its cathedral a diocese rightfully expects to find a liturgy that is the worthiest in the diocese, an example to the rest of the diocese’s churches, and an encouragement to them. This year, Rome’s bishop will not be celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in his cathedral. In fact, he will not even be celebrating it in public. Pope Francis has decreed that this Mass will be “simple”, closed to the media, at least for live broadcasts, and, by the very nature of a prison, closed to the public as well.

It will be wonderful for the prisoners, but not so wonderful for the Church at large, nor his diocese in particular. One could argue that since Francis has not taken possession formally of his cathedral (and won’t until 7 April, Divine Mercy Sunday) it is appropriate for him to celebrate the sacred liturgies of this Holy Week outside it. However, it also sends an unintended message that some of the principal papal liturgies will be far more narrowly exclusive. They are usually to some degree exclusive in that normally a ticket is required to attend, but the tickets are at least open to application from all. I am not sure that papal liturgies celebrated for an exclusive circle of the poor or marginalised are much better, if at all, than liturgies for an exclusive circle of the rich. It could be seen to smack of that old chestnut of affirmative action, fighting discrimination with discrimination.

The bulletin also says that there will be 10 girls and 40 boys present, and that the pope “will wash the feet of 12 of them”. Given his liturgical tastes I am sure I am not the only one wondering if he is going to wash the feet of some of the girls. It has become de rigeur in some parts of the Catholic world to wash the feet of women as well as men during this optional part (called the Mandatum) of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It sounds lovely to do so: all so very inclusive and non-gender specific. And if the Mandatum was intended only to be a symbol of a general humble Christian service in the style of our Lord there could be no argument against it.

However, the Mandatum is intended quite specifically to recall Christ’s washing the feet of his apostles. The Maundy Thursday evening Mass recalls also that at the Last Supper Christ ordained the apostles as apostles. From them came, down to our day, the bishops, and from the bishops, priests. So, we do not commemorate only the institution of the Eucharist at this Mass, but also the institution of the ordained ministry. Christ, their Master, washes their feet to remind them that to lead is to serve (as Pope Francis has already reiterated, “authentic power is service”), and that their leadership must be models of his. Thus popes usually wash the feet of other clergy to remind not only himself but the clergy by what character their leadership must be marked. In fact one could argue that in cases where a bishop (or some other pontiff) does not wash the feet of other clerics, the option for the Mandatum should be omitted. By washing the feet of laymen at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, this intrinsic and crucial level of symbolism is lost and it can be seen more reasonably as (though I hate the word) “sexist”. In the context of this Mass, can 12 laymen symbolise the institution of the priestly ministry in the Church any better than 12 laywomen? It is a question that deserves an answer, provocative though it might seem.

However, if the pope were to decree that henceforth the Mandatum should no longer be seen as a symbolic re-enactment of Christ’s washing his apostles’ feet to remind his ministers how they are to lead, but instead is to be seen now as a symbol to all Christians about how to exercise any power that they might have in either the Church or the world, then washing anybody’s feet could become, quite feasibly, the norm. That would be a significant break with a tradition observed by both Catholics and Orthodox. It is not a dogma, and is changeable. However, just because something can be changed does not necessarily mean it should be changed.

The Orthodox

A truly exciting development right from the start of this papacy has been the continued willingness of the Orthodox to further ecumenical relations. Most likely for the first time ever a Patriarch of Constantinople has attended the inauguration of a pope. When Francis and Bartholomew exchanged gifts there was a wonderful exchange between them caught on camera. Francis apologised for the smallness of his gift of a pectoral cross compared to Batholomew’s gift of an imposing icon, to which Bartholomew replied, “It is beautiful because it is a cross and it is a gift from you“. Patriarch Bartholomew’s heart is in this venture. It comes after Pope Paul VI embraced Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964, after Bl John Paul II called for the Church to breathe with both its lungs, east and west, and after Benedict XVI’s profound theological dialogue with the Orthodox which so reassured them. Francis inherits a great “moment” in Church history.

This was confirmed for me when today on reading that Patriarch Bartholomew has told the press that he foresees “there is a possibility for the next generations to see the churches of the East and West reunited”. That an Orthodox patriarch can talk of reunion in such clear and positive terms is remarkable. Bartholomew also revealed that he was surprised to be invited to dinner with Pope Francis and the cardinals, at which he blessed the meal. Sharing from one table is wonderful preparation for sharing from one altar. And it keeps on coming: Bartholomew has invited Francis to his patriarchate; and the successors of St Peter and St Andrew, as brothers, will make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

So while there is much to expect with excitement on the ecumenical front, there is room for some trepidation on the liturgical front. So we watch and pray.

Franciscan Simplicity

Pope Francis’ explicit commitment to Franciscan poverty and simplicity is gaining the secular media’s attention as much that of the Catholic media. It comes as a timely reminder to a world, and Church often too caught up in the world, that some things are essential in Christianity, and some things merely desirable or optional. A concern for the poor is central to the preaching Christ and the apostles. The unity of Christ’s Church is likewise not an option, though it was likely at least for a while given Christ’s need to pray “that they might all be one” (John 17:21). However it is wound in Christ’s Body that hampers its preaching of the gospel. Pope Francis seems very much committed to these essentials. However, worship is just as much an essential of Christianity. Indeed one cannot be Christian without worshipping God both individually and communally.

The highest form of worship is the Mass, the source and summit, as the Council tells us, of the Christian life. The Eucharistic Body of Christ builds and enlivens his ecclesial Body. No Eucharist, no Church. It is through the Mass that we are enabled to share continually in the saving grace of the one sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The Mass builds each Christian into the ecclesial Body of Christ through the Eucharistic Body of Christ, and enlivens us with the same grace that enlivens all the Church.

The pope models himself after St Francis of Assisi, a most un-Jesuit thing to do! But lest we lose our perspective and get carried away in a great rush of puritanical Franciscan zeal for poverty, let us remember what the great said himself of the liturgy. St Francis admonished clerics to

hold the chalices, corporals, ornaments of the altar, and all that pertain to the Sacrifice as precious. And if the most holy Body of the Lord is left very poorly in any place, let It be moved by them to a precious place, according to the command of the Church and let It be carried with great veneration and administered to others with discretion.

Poverty is not penury, and personal poverty does not preclude a worthy and beautiful liturgy in places of beauty, using things both precious and beautiful. This too is Franciscan. So we can hope that Pope Francis will look in the Vatican cupboards, so rich with provisions for worship, and use what he finds there. He need commission nothing new, need spend no more money. It is poverty also to use what one already has, what one has been give, to worship Christ and his Body. Not for St Francis to be Judas who begrudged the Magdalen the costly ointment with which she anointed Jesus’ feet. Judas’ professed concern that the money could have been better spent on the poor did not sway Jesus one bit. Judas was not concerned for the poor, and those who most decry the use of precious things in the liturgy as a disregarding of the poor usually live lives the poor would envy. The money spent on worship does not impoverish the poor; it is near universal human greed that impoverishes them. Rather than denude our liturgy let us denude ourselves first.

Pope Francis is no fool. We can be sure he knows this. So we need not be too concerned that his decision not to move into the papal apartments but to stay in the Domus Sancta Martha, the cardinals’ residence for the conclave, might be at first sight a showy piece of humility. The Domus is not a hovel. Popes living in the papal apartments is a tradition not much more than a century old. He will use the reception rooms of the apartments for business and receiving guests and dignitaries. He is not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If this were something new in the life of our new pope perhaps we might have cause to fear all this humility is a bit of a show for the cameras. However, as we know all too well now, this style of living marked the pope’s time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he lived in a small apartment, cooked for himself and took public transport to work. His lifestyle choice is not reproach to his predecessors but fidelity to his own previous practice of evangelical poverty. Papacy, he seems to believe, is no excuse for giving that up.

Still, he does rather leave himself open to the attentions of the humorists. Eye of the Tiber has a gentle dig at him. And Eccles and Bosco take a more oblique approach, lampooning the reactions to Pope Francis rather than the pope himself. If you could do with a quick giggle, go and read those pages.

So much more to say, but already this is way too long. Better to stop now. Are you still awake?