Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013...10:43 am
Pope Francis takes service up a notch with gender-neutral ritual
Pope Francis knelt in a Roman juvenile detention center Thursday and washed the feet of 12 detainees there.
Catholic clergy and members of other denominations have been washing feet for centuries just as Jesus had washed the feet of his 12 disciples at the Last Supper before his death and resurrection.
But this new pope hasn’t done much that is generic or routine, so it wasn’t all that surprising to me that he created a stir with his version of how Jesus would wash feet today.
Instead of washing the feet of 12 chosen priests within the walls of the grand Basilica of St. John Lateran as many of his predecessors have done, the pope went to Casal del Marmo, where juvenile offenders are housed.
Once there, Francis washed the feet of not only Catholic youth, but also Muslims and Orthodox Christians who had been chosen intentionally from the 46 inmates, who range in age from 14 to 21. The chosen were from different nationalities as well, including Gypsies or North African migrants.
That didn’t cause much of a buzz, however.
The change in tradition that caused the most gasps throughout the denomination was that Francis washed the feet of two girls.
Vatican rules have long dictated that the pope can wash only male feet in that solemn ceremony. Bishops, however, including Francis before he was elected pope, have frequently washed women’s feet.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said that before Thursday, only men had been included because Christ washed the feet of his 12 disciples, all of whom were male.
I am not Catholic, so I wasn’t aware that popes didn’t wash women’s feet on Maundy Thursday.
I was surprised, however, that Vatican rules used the disciples as reason to hold to such a rule.
Yes, the 12 disciples were male, but they were also Jews. So to be a true replication of that faithful night, shouldn’t the pope wash only Jewish feet?
Of course, women should be included in such a spiritual occasion.
According to Francis, the whole point of his going to that jail and washing the feet of troubled young people, was that “washing your feet means I am at your service.”
He is not just of service to men.
“Help one another,” he said. “This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service.”
That duty is still paramount even though he is now the pope.
According to various news reports, as Francis greeted each of the inmates after Mass, one of them asked why he, the pope, had come to visit them, society’s throwaways.
Reportedly, Francis said the visit was to “help me to be humble, as a bishop should be.”
He said he wanted to come “from my heart. Things from the heart don’t have an explanation.”
“Things” from the heart should not have rules or restrictions, either.
Jesus made that clear when the scribe asked him in Mark 12: 29-31 which was the most important commandment?
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
It appears Francis is taking his direction from a higher authority.
That is refreshing. Maybe we all should try that.