Today is Holy Thursday. Two years ago, I gave an RCIA class a lecture on the Triduum. Actually sitting down and researching the Triduum made me a problematic RCIA lecturer because what I learned flew right in the face of the liturgies planned in that parish. The most obvious one was the significance of the washing of the feet. That women are invited (or pressured, as I once was) to have our feet washed seems like no big deal until you understand the meaning of the rite.
Here is the post I blogged in 2009. The principal difference between Holy Thursday 2009 and Holy Thursday 2011 is that I will be at a Holy Thursday Mass celebrated by an FSSP priest in Edinburgh, so everything will be done according to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
Oh, and I should add that the Eucharist is not yet the Eucharist without the Sacrifice of Good Friday. This was never, ever explained to me in theology school, and I still cannot explain it properly.
A Day to Pray for Priests
Today is Holy Thursday, and on this day we commemorate the founding of two sacraments: the Eucharist and the Priesthood.
Here are some remarks I gave to an RCIA class:
The rubrics of the liturgical foot-washing, or Mandatum, specify that priests should wash the feet of 12 men. (Before 1970, the men were clerics or poor men.) The priest would ritually wash the 12 men's feet, wipe them dry and kiss them. Today parishes, in a self-directed attempt to be "inclusive", ask women to be among the "twelve". It think this undercuts the sense of the Twelve's priesthood, or the sense that the foot washing is, in a way, something that priests do, and do for each other.
That said, Jesus' example is for all in this way: that all friends of Christ are called to serve others, even in ways that we think beneath our dignity. Mauriac writes, "[Jesus'] washing of the feet prefigured all the works of charity which would change the face of the world...Two families will spring up among the friends of Christ, [contemplative orders and active apostolates]." Contemplative orders meditate upon the Passion of Christ and watch with Him in the Garden all their lives long; active apostolates serve Him in the poor, the sick, the young, and the otherwise marginal. I know well-educated Jesuits who scrubbed the floors of AIDS hospices.
But not only are we asked to serve those with less power than ourselves. This, in a way, can be easy: one is in a position of strength. On Holy Thursday, Jesus said "A new commandment I give to you--that you love one another. By this will all men know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another." And this means to me that I have to love not only the poor but men and women of my own social circumstances. I have to, to be blunt, love theologians who disagree with my theology and do things I consider awful to the Mass. And I admit that I struggle to be fair to... Well, there it is. And if a priest has to wash the feet of twelve other priests---Well, let's just say I bet that is harder, and more to the point, than washing the feet of random parishioners.
Sometimes priests give other priests a hard time. And sometimes I give priests a hard time. Goodness knows, I have got into loud arguments with at least two parish priests and objected loudly to the habits of two more. I have counselled a friend to blow the whistle on the much older priest whose crush on her made her feel uncomfortable. I advise that again in a heartbeat to someone I knew to be truthful and sane*, but I have been impatient with priests when I should have been more patient, and I have complained about priests when I should have been silent. (One cannot be silent, however, on priests who abuse their power or make advances. One talks, however, to the priest's superior, not to the papers.) But one thing that sets me apart from anti-Catholics (including "Catholic" anti-Catholics) is that I don't hate priests for being priests.
Many in the world hate priests for being priests. At its mildest and most pitiable, the hatred comes from women who feel rejected because they can't become priests themselves. Some people, hating God, hate priests because they see them as representatives of God. Some people, hating the Roman Catholic Church, hate priests because they see them as the agents of that Church. A dear priest I know, a good, good man, was once spat on in the streets of Toronto because he was in clericals.
Priests are men apart, and in some ways we need to treat them as such. Cradle Catholics like myself have strong mental reservations about getting too friendly with priests. When a good theology school buddy of mine got ordained, I stopped hugging him. Later, though, I resumed ye olde fraternal hugs because it occured to me that A) my buddy had enough loneliness in his life and B) there was exactly zero chance of my endangering his vocation. Although we have to remember to be modest around priests, we shouldn't shut them out of our friendship with pious masks.
I'm privileged to know and work with some really great priests. Some of them are my friends, and some of them I will always consider to be my dear teachers. Of course, there are other priests that I simply can't stand. However, in a pinch, I would hide them in my basement or--since I am moving into a historical house anyway--construct a comfortable priest hole simply because they are priests.
Have there been times when it has been harder to be a priest? Yes: we can be thankful that, in the West at least, priests are not being rounded up, tortured and killed. But now the West loves to mock celibacy, self-abdegnation, fasting, obedience, careful observation of ritual, and everything else that feeds the priestly life and helps it to flourish. Therefore, our priests today need our prayers and friendship more than ever before to help them become and remain happier and better priests.
So tonight at Mass, I'm going to pray for priests. The priestly significance of the footwashing ritual will, unfortunately, be shoved aside, for at my parish it will include non-priests doing the washing and, as is more and more common, people who can never become priests (women) receiving the washing. If the ritual were just about service (and indeed that is very important and holy in itself) and if the employment of non-priests and women were permitted by the 1970 Missal, I would have no problem with the adapted rite. However, we are in danger of forgetting that priests are special and taking away from their just dignity by sharing their special role with non-priests.
Update: I have been reminded that sometimes people, whether because they are unstable or manifestly wicked, make false accusations against priests. One famous case was that of the gay man who accused Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago. The man recanted his slander.
---Seraphic Meets Bridezilla, 2009
I hope you all have a blessed Holy Thursday. Special greetings to all priests who read this blog, if you have time to read it today!
Update: It may amuse you to know that at least one of the RCIA students was entirely freaked out by my presentation. (Hindsight being 20/20, I'm sorry about that.) She was horrified by the thought that a priest might kiss her feet, and the RCIA admin had to assure her that nobody would kiss her feet.
This points, of course, to something we'd rather ignore: handling and washing someone else's body is a very physical, intimate act, normally reserved (outside Finland, anyway) to the family or professional carers. Parents wash their young children, adult children wash their aged parents, and spouses occasionally wash each other for fun.
It is difficult to get ourselves into the mindset of the 1st century Mediterranean, where slaves washed feet, and people expected it. It may even be difficult to get ourselves into the mindset of a nurse, who washes people as part of her (or his) routine, or of a patient, who is resigned to it. I'll tell you this, though: I'd rather be washed by a female nurse than by a male nurse.
I'm assuming that priests as part of their priestly charism can get beyond all that kind of thing and simply wash each others feet. But I don't think we should force priests to set aside their natural modesty to handle women's feet, or women to set aside theirs to have their feet handled. I mean, really.
Update 2: Possibly finding it a teachable moment, one of the women who washed feet that evening in 2009 told me how very moving she found it. Tears sprang to her eyes, etc. Two years later, I finally know what the answer is to that, which is that our own subjective feelings of pleasure in doing those things that properly belong to priests mean squat. For all she knows, a little boy who was beginning to hear the Call saw her that night and thought, "Oh, so women do that too" and---wham. Ears shut to Call. One fewer priest in 2025 than we might have had.