24 March 2016
PEDILAVIUM or FOOT WASHING: such a wealth of different meanings
The meaning of this rite, in the intention of the current Sovereign Pontiff, has been changed. I persist, against all the traddy shock-horror, in considering this No Big Deal. Firstly, a bit of History.
(1) The sense the Pedilavium appears (not invariably but) most commonly to have had in the pre-modern period was of humble service done by a superior (Bishop, Abbot) before his own subjects, and in the intimacy of their own close fellowship. Among the feet which Father Abbot washed were those of the young monk whom, perhaps, he had needed yesterday to discipline. His Lordship the Bishop did the same for a presbyter with whom ... forfend the thought! ... he may have had a less than cordial relationship. Perhaps an equivalent would be Papa Bergoglio washing the feet of curial cardinals including those who had disagreed with him in Synod or during their weekly audiences!
The Lord did not, as people sometimes carelessly assert, "wash the feet of his disciples", who were many; He washed the feet of a much more limited group, the Twelve. He did not wash the feet of the people who flocked to hear Him teach in the fields or on the Mountain or beside the Lake or in the village square, or even the feet of the Seventy He sent forth or of the women who ministered to Him; when He washed the feet of the Twelve, it was behind the closed doors of an exclusive Meeting arranged in almost 007-style secrecy. And the implication of S Peter's words was that this had not been the Lord's regular custom.
It has been plausibly suggested that we might discern sacerdotal undertones when a bishop washes the feet of his presbyters; Anglicans will recall that Bubbles Stancliff, a liturgical dilettante who was bishop of Salisbury and who appears to have believed this, introduced the ceremony into Anglican ordination rites.
Washing the feet of a person with whom one has no relationship, no daily fellowship whether for better or for worse, empties the rite of this, historically (I think) its first, meaning. Unless a different meaning is devised, it becomes an empty, formalistic, ritual.
(2) A second meaning of some historic pedilavium ceremonies was both the humility and the generosity of the great and the grand towards their social inferiors. Holy Condescension. This is the meaning which the rite had when it was used by sovereigns and by some bishops. Food, clothing, money would often be distributed. In the twentieth century, British monarchs restored the rite in this sense, but did not revive the actual footwashing. Specially minted pieces of archaic coinage are distributed. True, the Lord High Almoner still girds himself with a towel, but that is only because this is the sort of thing which the English, a strange race, deem to be 'tradition'.
Meanings (1) and (2) both rest upon presuppositions of status and hierarchy. These are concepts now rather out of vogue. Perhaps this is why the Holy Father has dreamed up a new and completely different understanding of the rite ... inculturating it, so to speak, into post-modernity.
(3) This different and new meaning Papa Bergoglio now wishes to attach to the rite is the boundless love and Mercy of God to all, and not least to those on the peripheries of Society. This removes any overlaps with meanings (1) and (2) (and it is very far from what the closed and exclusive intimacy of the Last Supper suggests that the Lord had in mind). But, as long as we all understand that this new meaning has nothing whatsoever to do with S John's Last Supper narrative or the Church's ancient liturgical tradition, it seems to me a perfectly reasonable Acted Parable for an innovative Roman Pontiff to introduce and to encourage. No harm in a bit of imagination!!
Since the Pedilavium is, in historical terms, a very recent and completely optional importation into the Liturgy of a ceremony which (where it was done at all) used to be extra-liturgical and took varying forms, I cannot see why any Roman Pontiff, or, for that matter, any junior curate, should not be entitled to juggle around with it, and to give it whatever new meaning or meanings he chooses to suit his own specific social context. (Whether Maundy Thursday, a congested Day on which liturgically quite a lot already happens, is the most apt time for such performances, I very much doubt. Here, I have a constructive suggestion to make: see, below, my penultimate paragraph.)
What puzzles me is not that Pope Francis has opted for meaning (3). This is very much in character. What I do find so incomprehensibly strange is the new restriction he has has himself placed on those whose feet are washed, i.e. his demand, made a few weeks ago, that they must be Christians. [As he wrote to Cardinal Sarah: "I have reached the decision ... I order that ... from among all the members of the People of God".] This was not previously the rule. Francis has in the past, for example, according to reports, himself washed Moslem feet. And the new restriction seems to me to go directly against the Pope's declared preferred meaning (3). It will be interesting to see, this very evening, whether he himself obeys his own newly imposed rule.
Wouldn't it be more congruous for those symbolically served in this way to represent the entire Human Community without restricting the rite to the Baptised, indeed, without any restrictions? Should it not be open to persons of all religions and none? Dr Dawkins and the Dalai Llama? And Mass-murderers? Rapists and Paedophiles? Victims of ecclesiastical prejudice such as the Franciscans of the Immaculate? Suicide Bombers, Neo-Pelagian butterflies, and even Journalists? The Ku Klux Klan and the Cosa nostra? Mme Chaouqi and Mr Putin and Cardinal Burke? Quot homines tot peripheriae.
Perhaps, indeed, Papa Bergoglio's new rite could be adopted in exchange for the custom, invented, I believe, by the late Herr Hitler and now rather boringly out of date: hugging babies with 'celebrity' ostentation. This has had its day: we need a substitute. And the Sovereign Pontiff has opportunely hit upon the makings of one. How might his intuitions be worked up and given a formal shape? What about this:
While being driven round and round the Piazza di San Pietro, the Pope could suddenly leap from his popemobile. His security guards would then drag out of the cheering crowd the selected individual and liberate her from her shoes and tights. The ever-faithful, ever-efficient Guido 'Jeeves' Marini would appear magically, imperturbably, at his Master's side with basin, water and towel. Et cetera.
This would have a wealth of meaning, a real profundity. It would, for example, remind the impenitent that the Eschaton, the terrible Day, can happen unexpectedly, at any moment. Trade would boom for Roman pedicurists. I hope I am invited to compose the Extraordinary Form liturgical texts for it.