Tuesday, April 15, 2014
The sign we give
I was pleased last year to have a bad back and so on Holy Thursday I had already thought about not washing the feet during the Sacred Triduum, I hesitated because the choir had already prepared the music for it and the chant for it had been printed in the Mass booklets. When Pope Francis decided to disregard the Church's law and follow his own instincts, I decided to follow mine and not wash anyone's feet but instead leave the bowl and towel that we would have used on the sanctuary step and invite people to come forward and put money in the bowl for the poor whilst the Mandatum was sung, they were very generous.
Before I understood the meaning of the rite I was happy to wash anyone's feet, because like the Pope I understood it to be about serving others. The CDW of course explained that it was about Christ specifically caring for the Apostles, those gathered with him at the Eucharist, who he would that evening commission to celebrate Mass themselves by saying "Do this in memory of me", it was obvious I was wrong and had misled people. I have had several battles, as have many priests, to do what the Law requires us to do and wash only the feet of men.. If the Pope chooses to break the Law, that is a personal choice, he has the power as Pontiff to change it but he has chosen not to do so.
I think the media and dissidenr Catholics likes to present the Pope as a latter day Robin Hood, adapting the Law and customs to suit himself, the problem is of course that it creates confusion for everyone else and weakens the sense of the Law for the rest of us. Law can of course be oppressive but in the Church it is meant to preserve justice and to protect the weak, and ensure the strong do not exceed their authority or pervert doctrine.
My mother used to speak of everyone in authority washing the feet of those subject to their authority before Easter in her Yugoslavian village; fathers would wash the feet of their families, masters and their servants, employers their employees, teachers the feet of the children they taught, army officers the feet of their soldiers, even partisan leaders would wash the feet of their communist comrades. After the Reformation in England the Sovereign continued to wash the feet of the poor until the 18th century, the "Royal Maundy" continues without the washing, with the Queen giving money to the poor. I would very much welcome Francis and indeed the whole Roman Curia going out into the streets of Rome with bowls, ewers and towels to wash the feet of poor and to distribute alms all day on Holy Thursday - what a wonderful sign.
Here, for a brief time I used wash the feet of 12 male rough sleepers at Mass and give them a small 'offering', they would come along just for that portion of the Mass and go. I think people thought it was rather wonderful, I began to think it was crass and more about me, than the liturgy or Christ. Christ's sign is not one about caring for the poor, or even those on the 'peripheries' of the Church, rather it is about caring for those at the heart of the Church, it ends the continued bickering amongst the disciples about who is the greatest.
There is something very intimate about the sign of the Bishop washing the feet of his beoloved priests, as there was something intimate about Christ washing his apostles feet. Peter, and presumably the others, was deeply embarrassed by it. It wasn't a public act but one behind closed doors, in the Upper Room. Judas after all is the one the disciples presume is being sent to give relief to the poor, the faithful Apostles remained with the Christ. Foot-washing is an ad intra sign at the heart of the Church. It was indeed a statement about power and relationships in the Church's government. In Rome especially where there is huge gap filled by various 'leperous courtiers', (Francis' words) between the Bishop of Rome and his diocesan clergy, how beautiful the sign of the Pope getting down on his knees to serve those who in theory are supposed to be his co-workers and closest collaborators. There are two signs that were given by Francis last year, the first was washing the feet of boys and girls, some of whom were not Christians, the second sign, which is equally powerful though not noticed by the more casual observer was deciding not to wash his priest's feet.
There is something significant about Jesus washing the feet of the twelve then going on the share the Passover with them. There is something very important that he takes this heavily prescribed Jewish ritual and changes it. I wonder whether using a ewe rather than ram would have invalidated the rite, presumably the Angel of death would have struck down the first born if the victim's sex broke with Tradition, for the Jews this of course wasn't an issue they simply did what was handed on.. Playing about with signs and symbols and there language within the context of religion is very dangerous, we simply don't know what can of worms we are opening up.
The signs we give are always multi-layered, signs go beyond words, the don't have a fixed meaning, often the sign intended is not the sign that is received, different people perceive signs in different ways. Last year Francis' footwashing was taken by the world as a great act of his personal humility, for others it was a sign of inclusivity, involving non-Christians and women in this rite. I am afraid for me and for many others, it was a sign of lawlessness at the heart of the Church, the Supreme Lawgiver of the Catholic Church acting lawlessly. It became a sign of how during the Franciscan Pontificate the law -and tradition- should be interpreted, the Mandatum is after all about law and power. The chant that accompanies it says, "I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you ...", this is a commandment laid not on everyone but only on Christ's followers, the Church.
The build up to the Synod on the Family is an obvious example of the breaking down of certainties, after the Kasper intervention at the Consistory it seems, to some, that the Church's teaching appears to be in a state of flux by those who are looking for signs. I was told of a man recently who for over two decades has been living heroically in a 'brother/sister' relationship with an equally heroic woman whose first marriage broke down after ten years, they tried to get an annulment which failed, since then they have done their best to live according to the teaching of the Church. The man having read the text of the Cardinal's speech asked, 'Father, have we wasted the last 22 years?' He said that he now felt his faith was undermined, that the struggle he and his 'wife' had engaged in was by the Cardinal's teaching meaningless and vainglorious and that it was endorsed by the Pope who hadn't given any clear sign that he upheld the teaching these two people were trying to live by. There are many men and women in this situation, the sacrifices they have made have been truly heroic, for me they are signs of grace and often heroic virtue, now it seems that they might well have wasted their lives, this is another of the signs that is being given.
Posted by Fr Ray Blake