What is the Rite of Footwashing all About?

Pope Francis has once again arrested the attention of the world with another rogue footwashing — this year at a Rome center for the disabled. After the traditional Chrism Mass at a packed basilica earlier in the day, he celebrated a touching Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a house of the Don Gnocchi Foundation, a skilled-care center in Rome’s Casal del Marmo section, and washed the feet of 12 patients of various sexes and ages, to the singing of Ubi Caritas Est. Rocco has captured it for us from the Vatican feed — without commentary.

And once again, of course, the traditionalists are complaining and lamenting. I wrote about the fuss last year. But it is worth saying a little more this year.  Last time I addressed the argument that the Pope can’t or at least shouldn’t violate liturgical law. You can read my take on that here. Other arguments presented this year include insistence that any desire to allow women to have their feet washed is a threat to the male priesthood, because priesthood is what the rite is all about.

It is true that the passage in John’s Gospel from which this rite is drawn (Jn 13:1-15) has multiple meanings. There have been many suggestions as to what our Lord’s actions symbolized, including baptism and forgiveness of sins in Confession. An excellent case can be made out (as Dr. Leroy Huizinga makes it here) that on this occasion Our Lord actually ordained the apostles to the priesthood, by analogy with the consecration of priests in the Old Testament, which included the washing of their feet. All this is very true. But while it is one of the things this Gospel passage is about, it’s not what the liturgical rite of footwashing is about, something Dr. Huizinga unfortunately goes on to suggest. But the evidence is all against this.

The rite actually has a quite long history in the Church, though before 1955, it was seldom performed during Mass. It was a part of baptismal services in the early Church (related to the baptismal meaning of the Gospel; see above). But for the most part, its significance was connected with the explanation of Jesus himself:

If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. (Jn 13:14-16).

So the washing of feet became a sign of humble service to neighbor, particularly to the poor, the powerless or those of lower rank. In the Middle Ages, the Pope would wash the feet of poor men after celebrating Mass. Rulers and nobility did the same as a sign of Christian humility and service.  St. Elizabeth of Hungary, wife of the ruler of Thuringia, would wash the feet of lepers on Holy Thursday. Monks washed the feet of guests at the monastery. The people being washed in those case weren’t necessarily always men.

When done by a priest as a sign of humility and service to his clergy, the practice developed into a rite in which the passage from John’s Gospel was chanted, and it was celebrated in connnection with the Holy Thursday Mass, but separate from the liturgy itself.  Following the Council of Trent, with the adoption of a centralized and codified liturgy, the rite remained separate from the liturgy, until Pope Pius XII made it an optional part of the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper (Missa in Coena Domini) when he restored the Easter Triduum in 1955.  But the rite did not change the significance it had always had for centuries.

The Sacred Congregation of Rites, in the decree accompanying the change (Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria, November 16, 1955, Instruction), noted:

Finally, wherever the washing of feet is performed in church according to the rubrics of the restored Order, to manifest the Lord’s commandment of brotherly love, the faithful are to be taught the profound significance of this sacred rite and the opportunity to be generous in the works of Christian charity on this day.

Paschales Solemnitatis, the 1988 Document from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, prescribing the manner of celebration of the Liturgy Holy Wee, echoes this precisely:

51. The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve.” This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.

The actual passage in the Roman Missal does mention men as being recipients, but doesn’t specify their number. The specification of men was of course, a hangover from the earlier rite as performed for the clergy, separate in a way from the general practice, but having the same meaning of charity and service. Whether in our day the rite should be revised to reflect the broader practice inside the Church is something for the CDW to consider. But as a liturgical rite, the footwashing does not seem to have ever had anything to do with priestly ordination.

The priesthood, yes. Pope Francis explained it best last year: “I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service.” But the same is true of all of us, who share in the priesthood of all the faithful. Let’s remember to be generous with our service these last days of Holy Week. And generous in our interpretations of what the Holy Father is doing.

Go here for another detailed look at the question by Jimmy Akin (from last year).

Good Friday 1964 in Anchorage Alaska

My Dad was in the Air Force and in 1962 was assigned to Elmendorf Air Force base near Anchorage Alaska. We all had to move from our present station in Nebraska; Dad and Mom and the (then) 6 kids.

Lake Spenard

Lake Spenard

Dad decided, to save money on air fare, to drive the whole family through the Western U.S., stopping at motels overnight, and then to travel up the Alaska highway, passing through western Canada along the way, to Anchorage. I was six years old. But I remember the unforgettable scenery very well.

There was a long waiting list for base housing, especially housing large enough for us, so we rented a house in Spenard, a small town near Anchorage, on scenic Spenard lake, with spectacular views of the Chugach Mountains.

This was the setting for one of the most memorable events in our lives — which was also one of the most memorable historical events of the last century. It took place on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, 50 Holy Weeks ago.

A residential street in Spenard, from shortly before we were there.

I was seven years old and due to make my First Communion the next day at the base chapel, where we received our catechism lessons. But for Good Friday services we were going to Holy Family Church (later to become the Cathedral when Anchorage became a diocese in 1966). We left the two youngest kids, Pat and Mark, with a neighbor. As we drove through downtown Anchorage, I was absorbed in reading the new prayer book my parents had given me as a First Communion gift.  Then it happened, at 5:36 p. m.  . . .

I remember suddenly rising in the air so far that my head almost touched the roof of the car and falling into my seat again. The whole car had actually just risen in the air and come down with a huge BUMP! It happened again, then again faster and faster. At first, Dad thought there was something wrong with the car, like a really bad flat tire; he pulled off the road as quickly as he could.

In a moment, it was clear what was happening: it was an earthquake.

The JC Penney building after the quake.

The JC Penney building after the quake.

Mom was looking across the street. She remembers seeing the huge store front of the JC Penney building imploding; pieces of the structure were falling and people were running everywhere in fright.

In a couple of minutes the quaking stopped.  We didn’t know what else to do, so we drove the short remaining distance to the church, but were told the service had been cancelled.

We immediately drove back home to see if the Pat and Mark were all right. Dad had great difficulty driving around all the new holes in the road. The boys were all right, and thank goodness, so was our house – though we later discovered a crack in the basement wall. 

Everything had fallen out of the kitchen cupboards, things were overturned all over the house. That was soon righted. But we had no electricity for several days, phone lines were down and we had only the car radio to depend on for news. The sewage system was damaged and they had to bring drinking water around in a truck.

The weather was cold; in Alaska, the end of March is still freezing weather. We had to have blankets piled on our beds, because there was no heat in the house.  We cooked as best we could on a little Sterno camp stove that burned canned fuel.

I remember how worried my younger brothers and I were on Saturday night about whether the Easter Bunny could still make it to our house, and Mom assured us he would (she had excellent inside information!). We did get our Easter baskets, but not a very fancy dinner.

We had naturally assumed that the First Communion was cancelled, just like everything else, though it turns out they had actually had it, right on schedule. But since we lived off base and the phone was down, we didn’t get the message. I made my First Communion at the beginning of May, shortly after my eighth birthday, along with a few other stragglers who hadn’t received the message. I was really unhappy at not being in the class’ First Communion photo.

A total of 117 people died in the earthquake, which measured 9.2 on the Richter scale. Hundreds were injured. Downtown Anchorage suffered an enormous amount of damage; landslides destroyed whole areas of the city; many buildings collapsed; this was due especially to the fact that it was a “boom town” with a lot of construction taking place very fast during the previous years, and unfortunately, some of it substandard.  Spenard1964

Spenard was hard hit as well; to the right is the result of the quake in a spot call Turnagain by the Sea.

Alaska bounced back, Achorage was rebuilt. But the memory is still there.

Good Friday tomorrow is a good time to remember the 50th anniversary of this event. Death and Resurrection.

Noah: Answering the Flood of Critics

I saw Noah last week, and as a Catholic, I can say it is a powerful and moving experience. No matter what others might have said, there is absolutely nothing Gnostic or or diabolical about it. Just the opposite – it beautifully echoes Christian and Jewish themes about man’s sinfulness and God’s mercy; in fact, it does so more strongly than in any film I have seen for a long time.

It’s an audacious and imaginative adaptation, in concept as well as in execution. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. God doesn’t speak in a resonant baritone voice from the clouds. His will is known through dreams, visions and strange portents. The characters too are not like those in most modern Biblical epics, who have twenty-first century attitudes under their robes and sandals. Noah and his family live in a primitive, savage world. These characters are still relatively close — and in a most uncomfortable way — to the sin in Eden. The family members also have to wrestle, in a way that the characters in other versions of the story have not, with the idea that God really wants every human being but them to die in the Flood. (If anyone had a right to have survivor’s guilt, it was Noah). Noah has to struggle to understand God’s will in this morally complex world in which God sometimes seems silent. He struggles with his own sinful impulses. Completely unlike the happy-go-lucky John Huston take in The Bible.

Noah4I particularly loved the way that Noah tells his children the story of Creation, Eden and the Fall (“the first story I told each of you” he says) and what happened afterward as though it is their family history, which in fact it is. Not only that, but he and his family discuss the meaning of these stories on more than on occasion. This approach to the oral tradition that would eventually form the first two chapters of Genesis is delightful, powerful and intriguing, one that I plan to talk more about in my next post on myth. But right here I want to clear up some other misconceptions about the film.

I expected debate on the move, but I am shocked by how vehement the debate has been. The theory that the film preaches Gnosticism, and that Aronofsky secretly put this in the film to pull the wool over Christians’ eyes, was started by a blog post by a lay theologian named Brian Mattson, who poses as an expert on Gnosticism and the Kabbalah (though he apparently doesn’t understand either very well and thoroughly confuses the two). He also gets several plot points in the film wrong.  A fine Christian (Eastern Orthodox) film critic, Peter Chattaway, has thoroughly refuted this Gnostic nonsense here.  He also links to several interviews (or maybe just one long interview) he did with the director and screenwriter.

But starting from a totally false premise is Matton’s first mistake. He believes that the Creator (the name that the characters give to God) is the evil and vengeful lower God who Gnostics believe created the material world. The snake stands for Gnostic enlightenment, which comes from the higher, good God, and that is why Adam and Eve rebelled against the Creator, in order to have knowledge. Mattson believes that Noah also rejects the Creator in the end for Gnostic wisdom by letting humanity survive.

Noah1This betrays a complete misunderstanding of Gnosticism. The most basic idea of Gnosticism is that creation and the Creator God are evil for bringing about a world of matter and trapping souls in material bodies. Procreation is frowned on. Noah, on the other hand, celebrates the goodness of creation and rejoices over the birth of children. That Dr. Mattson couldn’t get that straight is astonishing.

In addition, Mattson seems to be spreading the idea that the Jewish Kabbala is wholly evil, a kind of sorcery, and that is a reason for avoiding the film. I am very skeptical of this conclusion. Kabbala is, in fact, a kind of Jewish mysticism with a variety of interpretations. That Aronofsky does adhere to it, and uses ideas and imagery on the Noah story from Jewish sources found in Kabbala is true, but I don’t see anything wrong or deceitful about it, as he has talked about it in interviews. Not the kind of thing to do if you are trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. The type of frenzy he is whipping up over this is disturbing. Part of the problem Christians have with the film may be that they have lost their Jewish heritage and this kind of imagery is just too “other” for them.

I am completely puzzled about why the fact that the movie has “environmental” themes is driving some Christians to denounce it, often in a rabid fashion. The theme of caring for the environment is in the film because it’s right there in Genesis 1-2 if you bother to read it carefully. The characters interpret it in different ways, but they are always aware that it has to do with a divine command — from God, not from Gaia!

In contrast to the modern environmentalists who don’t believe in human exceptionalism — that is, they don’t see a real difference between man and the other animals, other than that only human beings pollute the environment — Noah states on several occasions that man is made in the image of God, something not true of the animals. Human beings have a divine radiance in Eden that the animals don’t. Some complain that the villain, Tubal-Cain, quotes Scripture to support his own views: “Have dominion” over the earth and “subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), as opposed to Noah, who won’t allow his son to even pick flowers. So then is Noah an anti-Christian environmentalist? Actually, Tubal-Cain actions show that he understands the biblical phrase in his own way to mean: “Lay waste to the earth and strip it bare of its resources.” This is a caricature of an attitude that some Christians have held to the environment — a completely wrong attitude. Tubal-Cain is like the devil quoting Scripture for his purposes. Noah seems to prefer the command in the other Genesis tradition to “cultivate and care for” the garden (Gen. 2:1). He sees this care in a way that is in harmony with what the Catholic Church teaches about stewardship, even if he is a bit too rigorous about it (an aspect of his character which actually motivates a lot of the action).

But this is not the major difficulty for most people.


NOAHMost people are expressing shock and horror at one particular plot point. Noah’s thought as expressed in the film is that humans are sinful for disobeying God in the garden, while the animals are innocent. It takes a while, but Noah becomes obsessed with man’s sinful nature, which he understands that he and his family share. He comes to feel that their mission is only to get the animals through the flood in the ark, then die off, in order to fulfill God’s justice.

This is where the dilemma comes from when he learned his seemingly barren daughter-in-law is pregnant. Justice seems to enjoin he should kill the child if it’s a girl so humanity can’t reproduce. In the end, he can’t do it because of his love for his grandchildren (twin girls). Just as in regard to strict justice, humanity deserves to die because of sin, but God, out of love for his creation, mercifully allows them to live. This and the freedom of human beings to choose the good, is stressed. There is a conversation between Noah and his daughter-in-law late in the movie that makes this point beautifully.

There is so much more that could be said here, but I don’t have time to say it. Just beware of criticizing a film you haven’t seen, especially when Christian critics are so divided.

This is not to say that an agnostic Jewish filmmaker is going to get all of theology right according to Catholic teaching. But Christians should not be spreading rumors, falsehoods and crazy conspiracy theories about him and his intentions.

Here is more of Peter Chattaway’s take and more on the film’s environmental in his interview with the director.

Here’s an interiew roundup, with come really moving comments from the film’s co-screenwriter, Ari Handel.


Help Restore St. Francis’ Cell

I have to apologize for the site being down most of yesterday (and perhaps even before). It was traced to a database update that threw the oldest of my sites — this one — out of whack. Unfortunately, this happened just when I had quite a few urgent things to post, about Noah (which I saw Tuesday night) and about myth. But here is something really urgent.

I found out a couple of days ago that the Franciscan Friars of the Church of S. Francesco a Ripa in Rome are restoring the cell that St. Francis slept in when he stayed in Rome from around 1213 to 1223, in the days when the site was attached to the Benedictine monastery of St. Biagio (which was transferred to the Franciscans in 1229). This spot is also associated with the memory of Lady Jacoba dei Settesoli, Francis’ good friend, the “Brother Jacopa” who is buried next to St. Francis, and brothers Leo and Rufino in Assisi. She is thought to have been instrumental in getting the church for the friars.

Ripa1The cell is is serious disrepair, and apart from the addition of a stained-glass window in 1926, very little has been done. The state of the chapel makes it impossible even to make it open to the public. The friars have start a Kickstarter campaign that is due to end on April 11. They have $70,000 of the $125,000 they need to restore the cell and open it to visitors. They are getting international publicity, but still need a lot of help. I hope you’ll consider a donation.

Here is their campaign page, with a ton of pictures.

And here is the web site for S. Francesco a Ripa. Two other Franciscan saints are buried there — St. Carlo da Sezze, a Franciscan lay brother, and Ludovica Albertoni, a Third Order Franciscan. There is a famous sculpture on her tomb by Bernini.

I have already pledged to the campaign and I hope you will.

Update: April 9 — They made it! And with 48 hours to spare. You can still donate until April 11 — and you will get a reward.