Pope Francis washes the feet of women on Holy Thursday and the Catholic world goes crazy! The “yays” and the “nays” are not so quietly lining up on both sides of the line drawn in the sand. But the rubrics! He’s going against the Holy Thursday rubrics! Yes, he certainly is, but since he’s the Pope, it follows that he can grant himself the necessary dispensation.
Ever since Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis, Catholics of all stripes have an opinion. Those of us who place ourselves squarely in the more conservative Catholic camp are understandably a little nervous right now. We’re not used to so much change in so little time. If I had my way, Mass would be celebrated ad orientum with the edifying sounds of a pipe organ and altar boys in shiny black dress shoes and child-sized cassocks assisting the priests, who will always be men. Holy Communion will only be received on the tongue while kneeling at a communion rail. The words “liturgical” and “dance” will never be found in the same sentence. Latin Mass will be more widely available and all women will consider mantillas and church veils part of our Sunday wardrobe. I can say that from my comfortable pew in my affluent parish. I also believe that as far as liturgy is concerned, we have nothing to worry about. Pope Benedict made sure of that, and thank the Lord he did.
In some parts of the world, Catholics don’t have the luxury of arguing over the same issues. Some of them don’t see a priest for months because there aren’t enough to cover impossibly large parishes and transportation is limited at best, precarious at worst. Some of our brother and sister Catholics suffer injustice and reprisals because of their beliefs. Some die because of them. I doubt that they argue over ad orientum vs. ad populum; guitars vs. pipe organ; altar girls vs. altar boys. Maybe, just maybe, this is what Pope Francis is trying to highlight: the needs and concerns of all Catholics and not just a select few.
It’s not all about us.
Pope Francis has been the target of unfounded criticism, all of it seemingly from Catholics. Yes, his more simple preferences are being hijacked to criticize previous Pontificates and have given ammunition to anyone looking for yet another way to attack the Catholic Church. I contend that he is in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Everything he does is going to be misunderstood and condemned by someone so he might as well do what he thinks is best for Holy Mother Church.
What if Pope Francis is doing things differently because he feels this is where the Holy Spirit is guiding him, guiding us? What if he’s trying to show us how to put the words of his predecessors into concrete action? What if he’s trying to shake us affluent first-world Catholics out of our comfort zone and show us what Catholicism needs to look like in the 21st century?
What if, by washing the feet of women, he is telling us that we are all priests – not ordained priests – but priests in that we are to obey the admonition to spread the Gospel? “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9). To my mind, and it seems, to Pope Francis, that’s what it means to wash feet. That’s what it means to be Catholic: corporal and spiritual works of mercy grounded in prayer, given life and sustained by the Sacraments.
As I write this, I realize that in my circle of friends, there will be those who disagree, some vehemently so. In my head right now, I’m seeing the face of someone whom I love dearly and whose opinion I value and it doesn’t look happy. Oh boy.
So, I’m holding down my mantilla because the winds of change seem to be blowing through my Church. I’ll continue to refer to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who has articulated so well and in so much depth, the beauty, richness and timeless teaching of my Catholic Church that I would like to think I would defend to the death. At the same time, I’m also going to trust that the Holy Spirit is working in a black-shoe-wearing, women’s-feet-washing Latin American Pontiff who has been called to lead us – all of us – deeper into the beauty and meaning of what it means to be Roman Catholic.