What a lot of people don’t understand about Catholics and the Pope is that Catholics aren’t in the least subservient to their popes. The more Catholic you are, the more you reserve the right to complain and criticize the current Pope, as well as all the popes in the past. The people of Rome feel they have the greatest right to bitch about their bishop, and they do. A lot. (In fact, just the other day an ex-Catholic Jew from Rome took the time to complain to the Pope about the removal from the calendar of the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. Because that is what we do!)
“So what has upset the Banshee about what the Pope has been doing today?” you may wonder.
Pope Francis has announced that from now on, footwashing rites on Holy Thursday will not be performed on “viri selecti” (adult men who’ve been picked) but rather, on “selecti” (men, women, kids,
(UPDATE: Fr. Hunwicke points out that the Pedilavium is officially restricted by the new wording to “the faithful” and to “the people of God.” So you have to be a baptized Catholic, because that’s the Church’s ancient definition of “the faithful.”)
So let’s lay out the arguments.
PRO: Since the Pope does control liturgy, and since footwashing subjects are a matter of practice and not doctrine, it is within the Pope’s power to change this stuff. A lot of parish priests have long turned “viri” into “altarboys” (ie, substitute acolytes who are “pueri,” boys). A lot of Protestant groups have always washed each other’s feet, or at least they’ve done it since the 1930’s or the 1970’s; and a lot of progressive parish priests wash the feet of men and women. So the Pope is just making the rules conform to the actual practice on the ground. Hurray for fewer sins of disobedience and liturgical abuse!
CON: The Pope is supposed to protect the age-old liturgical practices of the Church, not mess around with them at will. The primary reason Jesus washed His Apostles’ feet was that He was doing the same thing Moses did, when Moses made Aaron and his sons into priests (sacerdotes, that is, not presbyteri). The humility lesson was an attached moral of the story. Jesus therefore did not wash His mom’s feet, the feet of any of the women disciples, the feet of any of the men disciples who weren’t being made into priests at that very moment, or the feet of any kids or babies. There’s a reason why footwashing was traditionally done by bishops. Having priests wash the feet of altarboys may have seemed supportive of vocations back in the 1950’s, but in retrospect it was a stupid overreach that has led to more stupidity.
And of course some Protestant groups wash everybody’s feet. It’s usually the same Protestant groups that don’t believe in bishops or priests, so of course they want to have everybody taking on the powers of bishops, and they have no grounds for differentiating between men and women in relation to a theology of clerics that they don’t believe in. That’s what they do!
EITHER WAY: Most of the Fathers who talk about humility also talk about footwashing as a symbol of avoiding impurity in the Christian life by “washing it off” with repeated penance, and a reminder of Baptism (because Peter had already been “washed all over” in his Baptism by Jesus).
St. Ambrose said (in De Sacramentis) that in the baptistery at Milan, footwashing of the newbies by the bishop and his priests immediately followed his Baptism of catechumens on Holy Saturday. This was intended to further sanctify new Christians against being “tripped up” by the Devil, whom God prophesied in Genesis would bite at Man’s heel. In the rest of the world, Baptism was disassociated from footwashing (at the Council of Elvira, aka Illiberis or Elibris) after heretics began to teach that you didn’t need Baptism, only footwashing. (And this is why we can’t have nice things.)
It’s also mentioned in many places that Jesus washed Judas’ feet, and that it was the last kindness and the last plea to him to stop sinning. Accepting the washing of feet is like the sinner who is contrite and does penance before daring to receive the Eucharist; Judas is an example of someone who doesn’t really repent, but goes to Communion in his sins, with full intent to do Jesus deadly wrong. The ablutions of Jewish priests before entering the Temple were also a type of going to Confession before Communion. Jesus’ threat to cut Peter off if he didn’t have his feet washed was His threat to refuse Peter the Eucharist. (St. Cyprian and St. Augustine both talk about this.) Jesus then mentions Judas as the one who is not clean, and as the one who eats his bread but will lift up his heel against Jesus (a quote from the Septuagint version of Ps. 40:10/41:9).
St. Basil in his Discourse on Sin says that the moral of the story is that whatever God says, we need to accept with our whole heart; and that no matter how good and pious and loving our intentions, disobedience to God’s commands will cut us off from Him.
St. Ambrose also mentions that the early Christians in rural areas did footwashing in the home, and not just as a Holy Thursday thing but as an everyday practice of humility. This is a sign that we are supposed to help each other stay clean of sin, and that humility and penitence helps that cooperation to fight back against evil.
If people really want footwashing for both sexes, they should do the traditional thing, and wash feet on Holy Thursday but not at Mass. For example, it used to be the custom for various charitable organizations, priests, kings, etc. to hold footwashing in public squares or nice warm buildings. Generally the people whose feet were washed were either beggars or pilgrims, and they were given gifts of money (“Maundy money”) after the footwashing was done. Often they were also given new shoes and socks, entire sets of clothes, or meals served by the footwashers. Women’s feet were usually washed by women dignitaries, and men were forbidden to be spectators.
So my conclusion?
This is stupid when done at Mass. If we’re lucky, it will die out quickly.
Also, do me a favor and don’t touch my feet.
(Most of the info in this post came from Cornelius a Lapide’s Great Commentary, and specifically from the translated volume that covers the second half of the Gospel of John.)