Is this really such a good idea?

by Bernard Brandt

No, not the Mystical or Last Supper. That, clearly, is one of the best of all possible Ideas which have been given us by the Mind of Christ. Great and Holy Thursday, or as some of you Westerners put it, Maundy Thursday, is the birthday of the Divine Liturgy, which comes before that Feast of Feasts, Pascha; it comes before Bright Monday, the day after Pascha, which is the birthday of the consecration of the Apostles (see John, Chapter 22); and it comes before Pentecost, which is the birthday of the Church.

No, what I am referring to is the recent decision by His Eminence, Robert Cardinal Sarah, of the Congregation of Divine Rites, reflecting a decision made by His Holiness, Pope Francis, to make a change in the liturgical practice of the Roman Catholic Church: that in those churches where the ancient and Dominical practice of the Washing of the Feet is enacted, the twelve people whose feet are to be washed by the High Priest (be he Bishop or Priest), are not to be “twelve men” as was formerly the case, but instead that “Such a group may consist of men and women, and as is convenient,  young and old, healthy and sick, clergy, religious, or laity.”

Now, those who have read my weblog, or my other comments when I crawled up and down in this Interwebz, and to and fro in it, seeking what mischief I may, will have noted that I have maintained the highest respect for His Holiness, Pope Francis. Soon after His elevation to the papacy, I remarked to a friend that Monsignor Quixote had entered the Vatican. In this, I suppose that I have differed from any number of people who have displayed what can only be described as ‘Francis Derangement Syndrome’.

And I can see the point in what His Holiness is attempting to do here. He has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy. And He appears to be taking seriously the command of our Lord to express that mercy, as Our Lord had said in John 13:12-17:

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

One must commend His Holiness for His evident intentions. But, and to repeat myself, is this really such a good idea? The reasons for my asking this question boils down to this: The new practice is a rupture from the past. It is a departure from the continuous and apostolic Tradition shared by Byzantine Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, as well as the Oriental Orthodox. And it obscures the iconology and typology shared by and expressed in that Tradition, that of the High Priest washing the feet of the Twelve Apostles.

Ah, well: it is done. But is it wise? Does it assist in reunion with the Churches of the East, or does it hinder it? Alas, I fear that the only thing that it does in that context is to confirm the concerns of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and of a growing number of Roman and other Catholics, that the present Roman Magisterium acts, and will continue to act, in opposition to Scripture, and to Holy Tradition.