On Pope Francis’ Change to the Washing of Feet

Anyone who knows me knows my preferences as a Catholic are very traditional. Ad orientem, Latin chant, incense, everything. That said, I regret the years I spent as a very strict and very closed-hearted crusader for these things. We must move, as Fr. Z often says, brick by brick, if we wish to institute change to restore the dignity of liturgy.

Even then, however, we must leave room for legitimate changes.

For years, I’ve argued that while one could interpret the washing of feet as a more generally apostolic gesture aimed at all disciples, the Church clearly intended the rite to reflect the priesthood by saying in the rubrics that men (viri) alone could receive the washing of the feet. Pope Francis “scandalized” many traditional faithful when, soon after his election, he washed the feet of women, a common faux pas and a technical violation of the rubrics of that time – if not for the fact that as the supreme arbiter of liturgical rubrics, he can more or less do what he pleases in liturgy. This has, in fact, been a major point of contention among liturgy buffs around the blogosphere. Did Pope Francis violate the liturgical rubrics? If his action was licit (I believe it was, even if I don’t prefer it), did it give others the right to do likewise? (I would have answered in the negative.)

News today indicates that Pope Francis has just changed the rubrics themselves, given the force of liturgical norm to his more general interpretation of the rite of the Washing of the Feet.

What should traditional Catholics do? Does this mean Pope Francis is a bad pope? An anti-pope? Is it the end of liturgy as we know it?!

Roma locuta, causa finita. Just keep repeating that to yourselves. Rome has spoken, the cause is finished.

There are going to be plenty of people throwing a fit about this. I understand. It’s not my preference either. The priesthood needs to be honored in the liturgy on the day we celebrate its institution. We need people in the pews to see a rich, deeply meaningful theology of the Sacrament of Holy Orders acted out before them. But the pope has decided to take the broader message of the washing of the feet. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. I think Phil Lawler of Catholic Culture brings up some important points here. These address real reasons we may not really care for this action. I agree with his concerns. I think we’re losing something in this change. But my article isn’t about whether we care for it, it’s about how we should respond to it.
  2. Traditionalism has a tendency to be defensive. “What do you mean be more outward? We’re not outward enough? We have processions in the street!” It’s okay, you can be honest about it. We get defensive. We have to stop that bad habit. The Church is always in need of renewal. Accept that and you’ll realize not all change is bad.
  3. Now that the rite itself has been changed, it’s totally legitimate for priests to wash the feet of all their parishioners. It’s in the rite. There’s no more referring to the viri clause.
  4. Pope Francis not wrong in his theology. In a sense, the Washing of the Feet is about the apostolic nature of the church and discipleship in general. And that also – which is a key point of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council – is a message that desperately needs to resound.

The Second Vatican Council was right. It was right about everything; such is the nature of an ecumenical council. The Church does need to look more outwardly. She does need to go out and evangelize. Anyone who denies this is burying his head in the sand. And if that’s the message Pope Francis wants us to get out of the Washing of the Feet, all the more power to the priests who share that take on it, so long as it’s actually what the rite allows.

Now, how are we to respond? Follow Peter. Do exactly what the pope tells you. Go out there and evangelize. Take part in catechesis, join your local St. Paul Street Evangelization group, take part in the works of mercy at your parish and in your town. Use those deep roots you have in the tradition of our faith, leave your shell, and branch out into the world around you. Be evangelical in your approach. Show the whole Church that no group of Catholics more values the mandate to evangelize than the traditional Catholics.

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