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Pope washes women's feet

Pope Takes One Small Step Towards Women Priests?

Pope washes women's feet
Pope Francis washes the foot of a woman at Rebibbia prison in Rome. Photo: AP

Why is Pope Francis’ change to the Missal, officially allowing women to have feet washed at Holy Thursday’s Evening Mass, stirring up so much dust?

Well, remember, Roman Catholicism, always seeks the exact moment, the exact syllable, when any sacrament actually happens. And guess when many understand Jesus to have ordained his apostles? Yep – you guessed it:

In performing these ablutions [washing their feet], Jesus is thus conferring priesthood on his apostles.

Washing the feet of males only (and 12 of them) is integrally tied, in the mind of many, many RCs with only males being able to be ordained.

Because the action of washing feet has been so closely tied to ordination, in this seemingly one small step, Pope Francis himself is dipping feminine toes into the waters of ordination discussions.

For over three decades, traditionalist, Latin-loving, ad-orientem Roman Catholics have had, as the final word, “The Pope has ruled”. Since Pope Francis, that line hasn’t worked for them. They’ve tried variations of, “Pope Francis is not making a formal proclamation/change” – but that also stopped working.

Two weeks after Pope Francis was elected, the writing was on the wall. In choosing to wash the feet of women, he broke the 1955 decree that twelve men were to be chosen to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday. And then he did it again 2014. And in 2015. Confusion and criticism continued. The response of Pope Francis was near at hand. A few days ago, the changed rule was out:

After careful consideration…To manifest the full meaning of the rite to those who participate in it, the Holy Father Francis has seen fit to change the rule by in the Roman Missal

This change by the Pope, allowing women, is described as an “unprecedented innovation“.

For Roman Catholics, the Mass repeats the Last Supper. I am unaware of another significant denomination that puts the Last Supper story into its Eucharistic Prayer as if the death is yet to come, so clearly giving it from the viewpoint of the day before Good Friday. Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayers have:

this is my body, which will be given up for you… the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured for you

And no Mass represents the Last Supper more for RCs than the Evening Mass on Thursday of the Lord’s Supper.

Dr. Leroy Huizenga, Administrative Chair of Human and Divine Sciences at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D, helpfully explains:

the footwashing scene in the Gospel of John is … primarily a record of the institution of the Christian priesthood and thus the Scriptural root of the sacrament of holy orders… Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet has sacerdotal significance; Jesus institutes the priesthood… the footwashing scene in John 13 is a “status transformation ritual” in which the disciples are made priests of the new covenant… in Catholic thinking, Jesus’ ritual washing the disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday is the institution of priestly ordination

Fr Ray Blake is another to express it well:

The footwashing at the Mandatum on Holy Thursday was taught as a Rite about Christ washing the feet of those twelve chosen to be Apostles rather than seeing it as a Rite that expressed Christ’s care for the world and for sinners and for the poor. …this Rite was about Christ’s priesthood and the Apostles participation in it, …this Rite was in a sense hieratic.

[See further, as just one more example: Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J. longtime professor of New Testament at Notre Dame University demonstrates The Foot Washing in John 13:6-11 is a Transformation Ritual or Ceremony]

This is one of the signs of irreformable acts by Francis. Since the beginning of his pontificate, his main supporters, including Cardinal Maradiaga, have insisted that the Pope wanted his reforms to be so great and symbolic no successor of his could ever overturn them. This is surely one example.

On 22 May, 1994, Pope John Paul II ruled “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”. One of the problems with the RC theory of infallibility is that there is no infallible list of infallible declarations. People who list this as amongst infallible teaching are themselves fallible in such listing.

Obviously frustrated, reaction has descended to the chauvinism of

Pope Francis has changed the rules for the Church’s Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony, issuing a decree allowing women to not only participate in the ceremony, but to have an optional pedicure for the low donation price of just $14.95. [And quoted here]

To be clear: No one following the developments in Roman Catholicism realistically thinks there will be a change allowing women to be ordained very soon. But we can now visualise a future when a pope writes about ordination:

After careful consideration…To manifest the full meaning of the rite of ordination to those who participate in it, the Holy Father Name has seen fit to change the rule by…

People may have thought the door to women being ordained in Roman Catholicism was shut. They now realise it is not. This is a toe in that door.


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10 thoughts on “Pope Takes One Small Step Towards Women Priests?”

  1. Sexism and Patriarchalism! Are these the clues towards the Roman Catholic association of the rites of Ordination and Foot-washing? That they ought to remain free from the contact with the female of the species?

    After all, there is something very intimate about washing another person’s feet and kissing them – especially if they happen to be of the opposite gender. I guess that’s why some Catholics feel that Foot-Washing is a step to far for inter-sex relationships for their clergy.

    The odd thing about all of this is that it’s OK to witness a couple of Rugby hoodlums jumping up on one another and hugging and kissing each other – but it wouldn’t be right to do that with the opposite sex (Now! Is that touched with deepdown homoeroticism, or not, I wonder?)

    Still, back to ur subject: Here we are, debating the affinity between Foot-Washing and Ordination. Both, do, indeed, involve intimate touching – maybe even anointing (a touch from the H.S.).

    When will the R.C. Church understand that Christ was not merely male he was representatively human and, as such, related intimately to both sexes – even to the extent of allowing Mary Magalene to kiss his feet and anoint him using her hair.

  2. Reading comments on some of the posts to which you link, Bosco, are very interesting. They make evangelicals turning half a verse into an ecclesiastical rule seem like dilettantes at that particular exercise.

    As for the insistence (via some of the commenters) that all altar servers must be altar boys, I wonder how all girl Catholic schools are meant to get through Mass?

    1. Thanks, Peter. I’m fascinated by your girls-schools question, and think of communities of sisters also. I saw comments sexualising washing feet (clearly from people who had never done it!) leading to seemingly-irresistible temptation. All priests, in their minds, were obviously 100% robustly heterosexual. Blessings.

      1. I went to an all-girls’ convent school.

        We had visiting priests celebrate Mass, but no servers. Everything was on the altar or close at hand, so the priests didn’t need an assistant.

        The occasional Jesuit would ask for girls to serve, though.

        1. Thanks for that, Cat. I guess that serving within the sanctuary was/is always a close-up encouragement to consider the possibility of having a priestly vocation. This differs to footwashing with its explicit connection to Last Supper ordination.


    2. The Orthodox, who are pretty consistent about only boys serving in the altar, have nuns serve in the altar in convents (and serving nuns are the only laity allowed to cense in the clerical manner). While I don’t know if any all-girls Orthodox schools, they probably exist, and I’m not sure how things are handled there.

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