Francis’ decision to disregard church law and wash the feet of two young women – a Serbian Muslim and an Italian Catholic – during a Holy Thursday ritual has become something of the final straw, evidence that Francis has little or no interest in one of the key priorities of Benedict’s papacy: reviving the pre-Vatican II traditions of the Catholic Church.
One of the most-read traditionalist blogs, “Rorate Caeli,” reacted to the foot-washing ceremony by declaring the death of Benedict’s eight-year project to correct what the blogger considered the botched interpretations of the Second Vatican Council’s modernizing reforms.
A like-minded commentator in Francis’ native Argentina, Marcelo Gonzalez at International Catholic Panorama, reacted to Francis’ action with this phrase: “The Horror.” Gonzalez’s beef? While serving as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Francis’ efforts to revive the old Latin Mass so dear to Benedict and traditionalists were “non-existent.”
On March 13, the night he was chosen pope, Francis emerged from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica without the ermine-rimmed red velvet cape, or mozzetta, used by popes past for official duties, wearing instead the simple white cassock of the papacy.
He also received the cardinals’ pledges of obedience after his election not from a chair on a pedestal, as popes normally do, but rather standing, on their same level. In the days since, he has called for “intensified” dialogue with Islam – a gesture that rankles some traditionalists because they view interfaith dialogue as a sign of religious relativism.
This year’s Good Friday procession at Rome’s Colosseum, which re-enacts Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, was dedicated to the plight of Mideast Christians, with prayers calling for an end to “violent fundamentalism.”
Francis, however, chose to stress Christians’ positive relations with Muslims in brief remarks at the end of the ceremony. He recalled Benedict’s 2012 visit to Lebanon when “we saw the beauty and the strong bond of communion joining Christians together in that land and the friendship of our Muslim brothers and sisters and so many others.”
Francis also raised traditional eyebrows when he refused the golden pectoral cross offered to him right after his election by Monsignor Guido Marini, the Vatican’s liturgy guru. Under Benedict, Marini became the symbol of Benedict’s effort to restore the Gregorian chant and heavy silk brocaded vestments of the pre-Vatican II liturgy to papal Masses.
Marini has gamely stayed by Francis’ side as the new pope puts his own stamp on Vatican Masses with no-nonsense vestments and easy off-the-cuff homilies. But there is widespread expectation that Francis will soon name a new master of liturgical ceremonies more in line with his priorities of bringing the church and its message of love and service to ordinary people without the “high church” trappings of his predecessor.
Thursday at the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention facility in Rome, Francis got down on his knees to wash the feet of 12 inmates, including the two women. The rite re-enacts Jesus’ washing of the feet of his 12 apostles during the Last Supper before his crucifixion, a sign of his love and service to them.
The church’s liturgical law holds that only men can participate in the rite, given that Jesus’ apostles were all male. Priests and bishops have routinely petitioned for exemptions to include women, but the law is clear. Francis, however, is the church’s chief lawmaker, so in theory he can do whatever he wants.
“The pope does not need anybody’s permission to make exceptions to how ecclesiastical law relates to him,” said conservative columnist Jimmy Akin in the National Catholic Register. But Akin echoed concerns raised by canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Vatican’s high court, that Francis was setting a “questionable example.”
“People naturally imitate their leader. That’s the whole point behind Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He was explicitly and intentionally setting an example for them,” Peters said. “Pope Francis knows that he is setting an example.”
The inclusion of women in the rite is a problem for some because it could be seen as an opening of sorts to women’s ordination. The Catholic Church restricts the priesthood to men, arguing that Jesus and his 12 apostles were male.
Francis is clearly opposed to women’s ordination. But by washing the feet of women, he jolted traditionalists who for years have been unbending in insisting that the ritual is for men only and citing documentation from the Vatican’s liturgy office saying so.
“If someone is washing the feet of any females ... he is in violation of the Holy Thursday rubrics,” Peters wrote in a 2006 article that he reposted earlier this month on his blog.
In the face of the pope doing that very thing, Peters and many conservative and traditionalist commentators have found themselves trying to put the best face on a situation they don’t like, lest they be openly voicing dissent. By Thursday evening, Peters was saying that Francis had merely “disregarded” the law – not violated it.