During my time as an undergrad at the University of Missouri’s prestigious School of Journalism, I learned a couple of maxims to employ when deciding if a story idea was worth pursuing: When a dog bites a man, that is not news. But if a man bites a dog, that is news. And you never read about a plane that did not crash.
In other words, headlines about the commonplace things in life rarely sell newspapers. They don’t catch the attention of readers and make them want to know more. With that in mind, I wondered about a headline I saw on various websites January 21:
Pope Changes Rules for Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday
I assumed the story had to be about the Vatican equivalent of a man biting a dog or an airplane crashing. Granted, anything involving Pope Francis likely is considered newsworthy: his spontaneous, off-the-cuff conversations and plenty of his well-planned answers to interviewers have guaranteed that. But these headlines screamed that he was changing a rule. The Catholic Church has a lot of rules. A rule involving a solemn ceremony on one of the holiest nights of the Church calendar – the news must be big. Did the Pope decide only left feet could be washed? Or that a priest has to wash a person’s hands and head as well?
The stories revealed that in October of last year Pope Francis sent a letter to Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
“After careful consideration, I have decided to make a change to the Roman Missal,” the pontiff wrote. “I therefore decree that the section according to which those persons chosen for the Washing of the Feet must be men or boys, so that from now on the Pastors of the Church may choose the participants in the rite from among all the members of the People of God.”
“. . . from all the members of the People of God.” So women and girls now can have their feet washed at the Holy Thursday Mass, not just men or boys. Okay.
Yawn. Move along, folks. No plane crashed. No dog was bitten.Nothing to see here.
At least, so I thought. My mom was among those chosen by our pastor to have her feet washed as long ago as the 1970s. My wife received the same honor when she worked at that parish as the youth minister in the 1990s. We’ve been members of a different parish since 2005, but every year women have been included in the ceremony. According to the Roman Missal rule that had been in place, the local bishop allowed the practice, then it was up to each parish pastor to choose between whether all men or co-ed feet were allowed to be washed.
I found various sources weighing in on the new decree. For instance, the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales released a statement that began: “This decree can be seen as a concession to existing practice,and its good intentions are evident.”
Alas, I knew there was a “but” coming. Sure enough, the statement continued: “It nevertheless . . . reinforces the trend which has seen priests increasingly surrounded by women during Mass, serving, doing the readings, and as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. This inevitably makes the all-male priesthood itself harder to understand.”
The internet* is a hotbed of cynics, nay-sayers, pessimists, conspiracy theorists and just plain angry people. From the moment Pope Francis wakes up, those folks loudly criticize his every move and word. Sometimes, they might have valid points. It’s difficult to tell, though, because of the substantial disrespect dripping from every sentence they compose. I found a bunch of them on Facebook.
- From someone named Jon Acord: “Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, all of them men, who shortly became his Apostles of his newly established Church on earth, the Catholic Church. It dishonors our Savior to wash a Woman’s feet.”
- From someone named Jared Suarez: “God give us a better pope next time please.”
- From someone named Michelle Marie Romani: “Hopefully the next Pope will undo the damage and all of the other damage that has occurred during this papacy.”
Not all the comments about this latest papal decree have been negative. I found these Facebook comments as well:
- Someone named Margaret Rose Glenn said: “I am glad to see this. I have to admit I have felt hurt on Holy Thursday when only the men were included in this very powerful ritual.”
- Someone named Julian-Louis Carter said: “I believe in tradition. But when we worship tradition and not God, we are no better than the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. And, if you call yourself a Catholic, you ought to be ashamed of disrespecting this man’s authority.”
I’m a little perplexed as to why there are such extreme views on this subject, and for that matter on every subject that involves Pope Francis, among people who acknowledge the pontiff is the Bishop of Rome and therefore directly in the line of succession of St. Peter. This isn’t a political race. This isn’t extremist Republicans skirmishing with extremist Democrats in an almost comical display that embarrasses people of common sense who refuse to take any of it seriously. This isn’t the Nation of Islam, with sane-sounding peaceful Muslims offset by extremist Muslims terrorizing the planet.
Why do so many Catholic people lack trust in our God?
I believe that Jesus Christ instituted the Catholic Church, with Peter as the first pope, when he said, “I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) Beginning with that moment, I believe two key facts were ordained: The Catholic Church is God’s will for His people, and Jesus Christ is in charge of His Church.
I think Jesus was in charge at the Councils of Trent and Nicea and every other council you can name. I think Jesus was in charge during the Reformation and the Inquisition, the Enlightenment and the Crusades, world wars and civil wars, two popes at the same time and married bishops with children, a scandal of pedophile priests and the cover-up of that scandal by bishops. I don’t consider washing the feet of female Catholics to be quite so scandalous, but even if it is . . . Jesus remains in charge of His Church.
Said Cardinal Donald Wuerl: “I can say with total conviction that it was the Holy Spirit that chose and guided the election of Pope Francis.”
The Holy Spirit that guided the Apostles in those early days of Christianity is the same Holy Spirit that guided the College of Cardinals through the selection of the 265 popes who have followed St. Peter, the same Holy Spirit who heard the prayers of all the Catholic faithful during these 20 centuries.
In hindsight and perhaps even foresight, did the white smoke always signify that the ideal man was selected as the next pope? Of course not. Each pope was a human being, with all the flaws and sinful nature that entails. Did every member of the voting College of Cardinals select true to the urging of that Spirit rather than choosing a favorite? Of course not. Men don’t always listen to God, and God is well aware of that.
“It was the Lord who put into my mind that fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies,” Christopher Columbus said. “All who heard of my project rejected it with laughter, ridiculing me. There is no question that the inspiration was from the Holy Spirit, because He comforted me with rays of marvelous inspiration from the Holy Scriptures.”
The Holy Spirit who guided Columbus to sail the ocean blue and “discover” the New World – yep, the same Holy Spirit to whom Pope Francis prays daily and to whom the pope has dedicated his life.
I don’t like every word and action that comes from the Vatican, but that’s a personal preference, the biased reaction of a Catholic man who is at least as flawed and given to sin as any cardinal or pope. I pray. I put money into the Sunday collection basket. I hope for a strong faith among my children and grandchildren, and that the Church will provide them the ladder to heaven I feel it has provided me (it’s up to me to climb that ladder).
Fortunately, we live in a country that allows us to speak our minds and not risk frightening retribution. Catholics in some other countries aren’t able to voice any religious thought. So I’m not going to tell people to keep mum on anything critical of the Vatican. And I’m not going to demonize a person, including a faithful Catholic, simply because they disagree with a decree or statement from the pope.
Pope Francis will make some mistakes. So will other men who formed the Synod of Bishops and who frequently speak their mind about how the Church should treat human beings and nature. Hastiness and rudeness could be seen as denunciation and disrespect of Jesus Christ’s handling of His Church.
Consider, please, that the world is dramatically different from the world in which Jesus and His disciples ate their Last Supper, when He washed their feet – an action that instituted the priesthood, say some, but an action that instead signified Christ’s desire that one who wishes to lead must first serve. In the first century, women not only didn’t serve any roles in government in that part of the world, they had essentially no rights at all.
The Church has changed in countless ways throughout time as the planet’s cultures have changed. A Catholic in the year 1500 wouldn’t recognize the Church today, but that same Catholic would recognize the world even less.
I’ve got news for you: Our Church is a big Church, more than 1.2 billion members and spread throughout a world connected yet starkly diverse. Change doesn’t happen easily or swiftly. Will we one day see married priests, female deacons or priests, divorced Catholics and Protestants receiving communion, Catholics with same-sex attraction welcomed into full communion with the rest of the faithful?
I don’t know that.
I could present a personal argument – one based in Scripture and the Magisterium and my prayer life – against each of those possibilities. I do know that someone who currently is in his 20s or 30s will one day be selected to be a pope after the prayerful consideration of a College of Cardinals and by faithful Catholics around the world, and that man will be the product of a generation much different than the one with produced Pope Francis and his 265 predecessors.
Change always is needed. And change there will be.
Instead of taking sides and being critical as soon as you hear of something coming out of the Vatican, will you please say, with me, this prayer first uttered by St. Augustine?
O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there Thy cheerful beams.
*Editor’s note: the word “internet” is not a proper noun and should not be capitalized.