Most of my adult life, since Vatican II, at every parish I have either worshipped or celebrated Holy Thursday, the priest and others have washed the feet of men and women, boys, girls and elderly people. I have never in my life given much extra thought to this practice because it struck me that Jesus, of course, washes the feet of all those in need as a sign to us also to do likewise. That conservative and reactionary Catholics seemed aghast that Pope Francis, for the first time for a pope, washed the feet of women on Holy Thursday took me by surprise and stunned me! It literally stunned me in showing how out of touch so many in our church can sometimes be. But maybe I have not been paying attention. I now know that a number of "self-referential" bishops and priests (Pope Francis' great term about those who do not meet people where they are in their struggles, real lives and, as he puts it, "in the streets"), including the bishop of a neighboring diocese of mine, have forbidden the washing of women's feet on Holy Thursday. I saw a recent right-wing Catholic blog expressing disdain and disgust at the pope for washing the feet of women and Muslims and conjecturing that, perhaps, next year he would wash the feet of cats and dogs! This may be a harbinger of Catholic conservative back lash on our pope.
I am saddened by such narrow and not terribly theologically informed ecclesial theology. I suspect that they think that, because Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the last supper, if we wash the feet of women soon they will want to consider themselves also disciples and want to be ordained! Actually, I have never imagined that there were no women at the Last Supper, if indeed it was held on the Passover. Jewish ritual assumed that the seder at the Passover was not legitimate if there were no women present. In the patriarchal society at the time of Jesus, who else would have served the meals? Jesus had, himself, just been anointed by a woman in costly nards and said something that, in fact, the church has largely ignored through most of its history: "Amen, I say to you, wheverever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of me" ( Matthew 26:13). In point of fact we have very rarely heard of this act of the woman proclaimed far and wide about her washing Jesus' feet with her tears.
Hurray for Bishop of Rome and also Pope Francis for washing the feet of women and few Muslims in the detention facility on Holy Thursday. Of course, they would have felt left out if their feet could not be washed. What a breath of fresh air—so necessary after such a long period of overly self-centered church activity—this pope represents. Let all of us call narrow, self-referential bishops and priests who do not allow the washing of feet of women in our parishes on Holy Thursday to some kind of ecclesial accounting and conversion. We need to address their narrow ecclesiology which slights women and the role of the whole laity--and the inclusive ministry of Jesus. At a time when people lament the narrow roles allowed to women in the church, what does it symbolize if you can not wash their feet on Holy Thursday?