13 April 2017

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.

Let me explain.


(1) The sense which 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 or even presented him with unwanted Dubia!  

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.

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 has been 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 up-market 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 that 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 which 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 liturgist to dream up. No harm in a bit of imagination!!

The Pedilavium as part of the Mass of the Last Supper 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. Accordingly, 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, in my purple paragraph.

                                                    A RIGID RESTRICTION?

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 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). There seems to be something of a self-contradiction here ... perhaps making it emblematic of this pontificate!

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 malevolent prejudice such as the Franciscans of the Immaculate? ISIS Suicide Bombers, Neo-Pelagian butterflies, and even Journalists? The Ku Klux Klan and the Cosa nostraQuot homines tot peripheriae.

                                                   A MODEST PROPOSAL

Perhaps, indeed, Papa Bergoglio's new rite could be adopted in exchange for a 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 sylph-like 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 ex nihilo, magically, imperturbably, at his Master's side with basin, water and towel. The People's Pontiff could then take it from there.

This would have a wealth of meaning, a real profundity. It would, for example, remind the impenitent that the Eschaton, the Day of Wrath and Doom Impending, could happen unexpectedly, at any moment.

Trade would boom for Roman pedicurists.


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.

Anonymous 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?

Anonymous 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

Anonymous 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.

John Vasc said...

"I cannot see why any Roman Pontiff, or, for that matter, any junior curate, should not be entitled to juggle around with it"
The Holy Father's 'ceremony' I am not forced to attend in person or even in thought. And any priest is free (as far as I'm concerned) to advertise a separately scheduled pedelavium and wash the feet of one-legged transgendered islamist lifers, for aught I care: that too I need not attend.
But when the curate or (more likely) the PP wilfully decides to innovate during Mass on Holy Thursday, I will tackle him about it after Mass, politely but very, very clearly: then (if such wilful behaviour is persisted in) immediately change my parish.

Fred W. said...

Mama Mia ! Status ! Hierarchy ! The refuge of the insecure ! of those who long for that which they have not known ! Let us not meekly wash what we have washed before !

I am disturbed. By the criterion of physical presence, those at a distance are neglected ! Skype them ! Do not the great and powerful rulers of the ancient Biblical lands - for example the ruler of the Aramites - deserve a momentary acknowledgment by the peaceable servant of the servants? *
Let us also ensure that those inhabitants of arid and drought stricken regions are gifted with a refreshing washing of their dried feet !**
Finally *** - why is there no mention of the washing of virtual feet ! Let us give recognition to the hundreds of thousands of people in the midst of quests and battles with an Easter Egg appearance of The Man in White.

* and ** Foot note: these and other examples can be found in the handy Manual (Pope's Practical Papal Pedal Praxis) published by the newly formed Congregation for the Relief from Tired Dogsma), Hagenlio Press, revised yearly. Written i/enquiries for clarification may be addressed to the Dicastery for Dubial Decrees in the Via Quisquiliae de Canistro.

*** paragraphs 297, 308, and 329 of Nullum Relinquam Pede Est Non Lotis

N.B. It is, after all, the Age of Aquarius.

Anonymous said...

What did the Apostles think of the Washing of their feet is the real question and how did it fit in with their religious life. Symbolically they believed this. When they entered someone's house they used the water given them to wash the dust of the world off their sandals/feet. Dust considered by them, the Jews, to be the sin of the world. New House, new religion is more than likely what they saw. Confirmed by Phillip when Christ said if I do not you never be with me in eternity. Christ also said when you enter someone's house and they are not charitable leave and wash the dust off your sandals (feet?)

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

This entire post is brilliant and a welcome "teaching moment" although in one part of it, one does wonder just how far your tongue pushed out your cheek.