It’s remarkable how a simple gesture can provoke such controversy. Pope Francis caused quite the stir last year when he celebrated the Liturgy of Holy Thursday at a prison. While many lamented his departure from papal custom, more were puzzled and shocked that Francis washed the feet of women. How could the pope dismiss liturgical law and practice?
Although I understand the need to adhere to liturgical rites as the liturgy is the prayer of the Church and not of one person’s preference, I was disturbed that people of faith were vehemently outraged by the pope’s profound pastoral care and compassion for the women and men of that prison. It seemed to me that few of us appreciated the pope’s gesture as a true witness to the abounding love of God for all of humanity.
From what we can gather from our reading of the Gospel of John, Jesus greatly troubled his disciples when he washed their feet at the Last Supper. At first the disciples believed that Jesus’ action was directed to them, yet they discovered that Jesus’ washing of their feet was an instruction to them for what they, and all who call Jesus Lord and Teacher, are to do:
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (Jn 13:12-14)
While the Greek word for disciple is masculine μαθητής – mathētḗs, and the religious and cultural situation would have meant that men would have been disciples of a teacher as women were not considered religious persons, it seems to me that our cultural situation has fortunately changed, or at least has begun to change. No longer do we limit religious practice to men. Rather, we affirm that women and men are persons and are called to be people of faith and disciples of Jesus.
Therefore, Jesus’ instructions to his disciples apply to all of us today. All of us are called to wash the feet of all those we are called to serve. Whether it is our neighbour or the homeless person on the street, we are commanded by Jesus to care for all of God’s people.
Perhaps we ought to see our liturgical washing of feet not as a re-enactment of what Jesus did, but rather as a living practice of what Jesus called us to do on this night and every day of our lives. Maybe this is what Pope Francis is trying to teach us. The washing of feet is about our Christian vocation to be servants to all of God’s people, regardless of gender, race or any other demographic descriptor.
-Don Beyers, Marketing Manager