Today, it was announced that Pope Francis will wash the feet of 12 refugees (no mention how many will be Catholic) this Holy Thursday. The Holy Father is no stranger to innovations in the rite, and today’s announcement follows on the heels of official changes made by the pope in January, altering the rubrics of the Holy Thursday liturgical practice of foot washing in a way that was compatible with his own annual deviations from the proper form. At the time, Rorate Caeli‘s Augustinus opined:
When, within two weeks of his election, Francis chose to include women (including a Muslim) among the “viri” whose feet he washed as part of the Maundy Thursday Mass, we immediately grasped its significance and posted that it was“The Official End of the Reform of the Reform – by example“. He repeated the inclusion of women in the foot-washing rite in 2014 and 2015, which could only have meant that he desired to normalize the practice. Today’s reform was inevitable. It was only a matter of time.
We predict that before long, like many other “options” such as communion in the hand, female altar boys, “extraordinary” ministers of holy communion and “ad populum” celebrations, having women take part in the Maundy Thursday washing of the feet will become virtually obligatory, with the priests who refuse it being stigmatized as “reactionaries” and punished in a variety of ways.
Francis pushing this decree through Robert Cardinal Sarah is another reminder that, no matter what the highest officials of the CDW say and do in their private capacity, it is still the express will of the Pope that matters in the end. Beautiful reflections, edifying personal example and words of encouragement are no substitutes for clear legislation. As long as the “Reform of the Reform” is not embodied in clear legislation that is vigorously enforced from the very top, it will never take off the ground and will never be more than the hobby of a tiny minority. No amount of brave talk from a handful of bloggers will change this.
Bishop Athanasius Schneider then weighed in, making clear the problem with this change to the ritual:
A typical Catholic parish priest should know well the perennial sense of the Catholic faith, the perennial sense as well of the laws of the Catholic liturgy and, knowing this, he should have an interior sureness and firmness. He should always remember the Catholic principle of discernment: “Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus”, i.e. “What has been always, everywhere and from all” believed and practiced.
The categories “always, everywhere, all” are not to be understood in an arithmetical, but in a moral sense. A concrete criterion for discernment is this: “Does this change in a doctrinal affirmation, in a pastoral or in a liturgical practice constitute a rupture with the centuries-old, or even with the millennial past? And does this innovation really make the faith shine clearer and brighter? Does this liturgical innovation bring to us closer the sanctity of God, or manifest deeper and more beautiful the Divine mysteries? Does this disciplinary innovation really increase a greater zeal for the holiness of life?”
As concretely to the innovation of washing the feet of women during the Holy Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday: This Holy Mass celebrates the commemoration of the institution of the sacraments of the Eucharist and the Priesthood. Therefore, the foot washing of women along with the men not only distracts from the main focus on Eucharist and on Priesthood, but generates confusion regarding the historical symbolism of the “twelve” and of the apostles being of male sex. The universal tradition of the Church never allowed the foot washing during the Holy Mass, but instead outside of Mass, in a special ceremony.
By the way: the public washing and usually also kissing of the feet of women on the part of a man, in our case, of a priest or a bishop, is considered by every person of common sense in all cultures as being improper and even indecent. Thanks be to God no priest or bishop is obliged to wash publicly the feet of women on Holy Thursday, for there is no binding norm for it, and the foot washing itself is only facultative.
Now today, 1P5 contributor Maike Hickson offers an informal statement at The Wanderer, obtained from Cardinal Robert Sarah himself, under whose purview (as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship & the Discipline of the Sacraments) this change in discipline lies, about what individual priests should do this Holy Week. This question is of particular importance if (as Hickson reports is already happening) their bishops are trying to impose the changes from on high:
After a couple of priests contacted me and asked me to help them receive an authoritative clarification from Robert Cardinal Sarah himself, so that they might be assured of their own spiritual freedom to decide for themselves to include only men into the rite of the Washing of the Feet, I asked Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin for help in this matter.
Pentin was able to speak with Cardinal Sarah who made a statement to Pentin according to which it is up to the individual celebrant to decide whom he invites to participate in the washing of the feet in the liturgy of Holy Thursday. As Pentin put it in an e-mail to me: “He [Cardinal Sarah] simply said that each bishop and priest ‘has to decide in accord with his own conscience, and according to the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast.’ So in other words, by no means does a priest have to wash the feet of women.”
I consider this clarification to be important and intend to make it known to as many priests as possible. I know that others are trying to receive a more official statement from Cardinal Sarah, but due to the lack of time, I decided to get this information out into the public.
The question, as always, is what the practical upshot of this will be. Barring an official statement from the head of the CDW, individual priests will “decide in accord with [their] own conscience” at their own peril. Even if Cardinal Sarah made this official Vatican policy (and wasn’t sacked for it), the odds that a priest who had such changes imposed on him from the chancery could make a successful appeal to Rome after being disciplined for disobedience are not encouraging.
And yet, this is exactly what priests in this situation should do. They should resist. They should follow their conscience. They should make clear “the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast.” And if necessary, they should endure punishment. The time for compromise is long since past. An unjust order is no order at all, and the time to come forward and stand up for the truth — as I said in today’s podcast– is now. If we don’t all start being more committed to God than man, we’re going to be swept away.
For what it’s worth, any priest who makes such a stand can feel free to contact me with the details and any repercussions. I can’t promise resolution, but I won’t let your story go quietly into the dark.
This Holy Week, what do you say we all join together and worship Christ, instead of ourselves or the zeitgeist? Isn’t it past time?
CORRECTION: In the original post title, I mistakenly attributed the quote, “by no means does a priest have to wash the feet of women” to Cardinal Sarah. This was an interpretation of the clear import of his words by Edward Pentin, and not a direct quote. I’ve updated the title to reflect this change.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have eight children. You can find more of his writing at his Substack, The Skojec File.