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.

23 comments:

W.C. Hoag said...

Father, you presume to know Pope Francis' definition of "People of God", i.e., that this term refers solely to the baptised. I have not heard Francis' definition, but would not be floored to hear that Francis includes all persons of all faiths to be among the People of God.

Amateur Brain Surgeon said...


It is a rare moment when ABS disagrees with you, Father, but just because you are far more intelligent, educated, and experienced, than is he, those are no reasons ABS ought not to disagree about this;

http://thenesciencentnepenthene.blogspot.com/2016/03/mandatum-or-non-mandatum-fleeing-in.html

Pax tecum, Father

Charlesdawson said...

Herr Hitler can be accused of many things, but not of inventing the ostentatious hugging of babies. In Chas. Dickens's immortal Pickwick Papers, there is a lovely description of one would-be MP's reluctant performance of this rite:
"'Wouldn't it have as good an effect if the proposer or seconder did that?' said the Honourable Samuel Slumkey.
"'Why, no, I am afraid it wouldn't,' replied the agent; 'if it were done by yourself, my dear sir, I think it would make you very popular.'....
"Another cheer, far more vehement.
"'He has patted the babies on the head,' said Mr Perker, trembling with anxiety.
"A roar of applause that rent the air.
"'He has kissed one of 'em!' exclaimed the delighted little man.
"A second roar.
"'He has kissed another," gasped the excited manager.
"A third roar.
"'He's kissing 'em all!' screamed the enthusiastic little gentleman."

Gillineau said...

Suicide bombers? Or a bit of a suicide bomber, hopefully a foot?

GOR said...

It is unfortunate – and a scandalum to many – that Holy Thursday is now being commemorated more by foot-washing than the institution of the Eucharist.

But this is very much in the Spirit of Vatican II, which sees the Mass more as meal than sacrifice, as Pope Benedict pointed out in “The Spirit of the Liturgy”.

It is also very much in the spirit of Screwtape, who advised against frontal attacks - favoring distraction and diversion rather than outright denial. And it works.

motuproprio said...

El Papa lava mañana los pies a 3 musulmanes (Siria,Paquistán,Mali); 1 hindú; 4 católicos (Nigeria); 3 coptas (Eritrea) y 1 italiana

Liam Ronan said...

I imagine that those happy feet will be determined largely by Francis' understanding of who or what constitute the "People of God".

"He riseth from supper, and layeth aside his garments, and having taken a towel, girded himself. After that, he putteth water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.

He cometh therefore to Simon Peter. And Peter saith to him: Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered, and said to him: What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.

Peter saith to him: Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him: If I wash thee not, thou shalt have no part with me. Simon Peter saith to him: Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.

Jesus saith to him: He that is washed, needeth not but to wash his feet, but is clean wholly. And you are clean, but not all." John 13:4-10


Thomas said...

I rather suspect that in his generally imprecise way of talking the phrase "People of God" is meant to indicate the whole of humanity.

Liam Ronan said...

I have seen any number of photographs of Pope Francis where it appears he has a problem with his knees, i.e. genuflecting. I wonder would Francis have gotten on his knees to wash the feet of the "People of God" today?

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Well, Thomas, some of the people who write to me would say "Anything is possible in this Pontificate". But the phrase is embodied also in the new rubric substituted by the CDW, so it ought to have a meaning there. And if People of God means 'humans', whom, by implication, is Bergoglio excluding? Alligators? Squid? Centipedes? I seem to recall that People of God is quite common in the documents of Vatican II and refers to either the old People of God, the Jews, or to Christians.

Sadie Vacantist said...

A more interesting innovation might have been to wash the feet of some Belgians living in Rome as an act of solidarity with the victims of the recent bombing. In any event, I am totally confused as Father's article suggests he was only doing Christians this year which was evidently not the case.

I sense we are on the wrong side of history with this Pope especially with Trump waiting in the wings. Revolution is in the air throughout the World and we are looking a very stale organisation by contrast.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

No, Sadie, I did NOT "suggest he was only doing Christians this year". I simply pointed out that he himself has just passed a law that only Christians should ne done. If you are "totally confused" because he has, within the last few weeks, passed a law which he himself is now pretty certainly planning to break, then you have grasped what it is that I am so "totally confused" about! So we are, I hope, "totally confused" together!!

Fr John Hunwicke said...

For 'ne' read 'be'.

Thomas said...

I completely agree with you Father. The Pope has used a term in a canonical decree that has or ought to have a definite meaning, but it seems he does not mean what he appears to have said. I was trying not to stir up a hornets nest over Easter, but I strongly suspect that Papa Bergoglio thinks that everyone on earth is a member of God's People come what may, which would be a much bigger issue than just the question of which token individuals get their feet washed on Holy Thursday. So I think that is what he thought he was decreeing, but it is not the formula he actually decreed. In any case he has done what he did before, so he either doesn't feel bound by his own edicts, or he has decreed something confused because of his own confused understanding of what it means to be The People of God. (And I'm sure there are some uber-trendy eco-theologians who might think it discriminatory or species-ist to exclude centipedes, so perhaps they will be included at some stage in the future, although the liturgy might go on all night in that case!)

Liam Ronan said...

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Matthew Roth said...

It is interesting the Holy Father has either omitted the stole, as far as I can tell, or tied it diagonally like the deacon’s stole. This places it firmly in the context of service, which has implications for the diaconal order considered in itself. I see no problem then vesting priests as deacons to have the solemn liturgy properly celebrated. Not only is it visually more enriching to see deacons (everything lines up and makes sense), most concelebrants have no idea what they are doing... Though, the praying (or not praying) of “Munda cor meum” by deacons and priests in the Novus Ordo is weird.

On a far more important note to me, this once again came about through disobedience. There is nothing wrong with women having their feet washed per se, and I am not convinced that the rite was/is about the apostles, though inside the Mass it seems to be. But it isn’t appropriate for a priest to wash a woman’s feet, much less to kiss them. Obviously, Father Hunwicke, your wife is a different case...

This leaves me with one conclusion. Were one wish to be faithful to the tradition, I see no reason as far as positive law and obedience goes why one can’t celebrate the pre-1955 Holy Week. Obedience is importance, yes, but clearly, positive law has a low level of obedience following from it. In doing so, at least one is following the tradition and not a novelty which may or may not be permitted by positive law.

Sadie Vacantist said...

One observation of Our Lord's actions is that he washed the feet of those he knew well. There was nothing random in the selection. In my experience, it is liturgically unimpressive and I tend to keep my head down during the event. I was selected once as a young altar server and my mother insisted that I take a bath beforehand which may or may not have been missing the point.

AnthonyMunday said...

Chapter II of the Dogmatic Constitution on The Church (Vat II) seems to define The People of God as us Catholics. “God… chose the Israelites for his people (lower case)… then he called up a people out of Jews and Gentiles... it was to be the new People of God”. And at one point it adds “Lastly there are those who have not yet accepted the gospel; their relationships with the People of God are varied”. This seems fairly conclusive. And of course there is Pope Paul’s motu proprio “Credo of the People of God” which I assume derives its title from the language of Vat II.

Bob said...


How the Cistercians Can Help Us Disentangle the Washing of the Feet

Charles said...

Why are we upset with legal positivism in the secular sphere, but fine with it in the ecclesiastical?

Liam Ronan said...

Speaking of spikenard and service to the poor may I with your forebearance, Father, here offer both yourself and your readers a link to the text of a 1974 sermon of Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen given to the priests of the Archdiocese of Washington examining the motives and actions of Judas Iscariot during Holy Week?

I think it both timely and relevant to present matters:

http://www.cfnews.org/page88/files/151d540ae74c412284312bee722b6883-552.html

Grumpy Beggar said...

Thomas said:"(And I'm sure there are some uber-trendy eco-theologians who might think it discriminatory or species-ist to exclude centipedes, so perhaps they will be included at some stage in the future, although the liturgy might go on all night in that case!)"

Ahh yes, the eco-theologian. Ever since the Vatican walls light show for environmental awareness they've become more audacious than ever . . . but, they were always there - just waiting in the wings (. . . or was it the thorax ?)

Yet, the central problematic consequence to when people start mucking about with rites and liturgy is that once the precedent is set, all the aliens can just barge in and invade at will - unimpeded : Include the centipedes, and in no time at all the millipedes are going to want in ; at which point we can forget about all night liturgy because something of that magnitude will require us to start opening up perpetual foot-washing chapels everywhere.

Next comes the consideration that centipedes don't really integrate very well with humans at all: In fact, the only human being whose name centipedes are even remotely acquanted with is Imelda Marcos.

John Fisher said...

Let's step back to an idea that lies behind this. That any Pope can change alter deform and impose his will through direct command of loaded committee like an ecclesial Kim Jong.... I am appalled by the vanity and caprice shown by Bugnini and his cohort who started with the deform of the Holy Week liturgy in the 1950's. Let's not forget the use of authority that has been used to impose rupture on all levels and has emptied the Church rather as it did in the reign of Edward VI. All we put up with has confirmed Protestant prejudice the Pope is an ecclesial despot who invents on a whim in defiance of Scripture and apostolic tradition. We don't see organic development but rather fakery where something is presented as a genuine antique when its a fake made of paper mache. It has also caused doubt for if the Pope can "do whatever he will on the earth in the sea and stars" why not women priest. homosexual marriage, pet marriage on and on since nothing is constrained by traditio. In fact if the policy is out with the old and in with paper mache traditions we cant resist anything. Foot washing outside the liturgy is no problem...its just devotional. I can see the washing of pets feet on the Feast of St Francis.