It’s Holy Thursday, so again the whole “Washing Women’s Feet” issue has cropped up on the English-speaking Catholic blogosphere.
By now anyone who wants to can easily find out on the internet that Holy Thursday liturgical foot-washing is not intended as a sign of inclusiveness but of priestly ministry. One priest, imitating the High Priest, kneels down and washes the feet of other priests to remind them of their priestly ministry to others. However, just as altar servers are priest-substitutes in places what ain’t got whole flocks of priests available, laymen can substitute for priests in the foot-washing rite. The rubrics say those who get their feet washed are Viri (MEN) Selecti, not Homines (PEOPLE) Selecti.
Oh, those pesky rubrics. Always getting in the way of liturgical experiments and feelgoodness. And as the law of prayer is the law of belief, every inclusion of women into the footwashing ritual is like a vote for womanpriests.
Not being a priest, I can only wonder how priests feel when their feet are washed by their bishop or their fellow priests. I can only tell you how I would feel, as a woman, having my naked feet handled, washed and dried by a man kneeling at my feet: utterly embarrassed. And possibly infantilized or helpless, since nowadays it is usually children and the very weak who are washed and dried by others, either their parents or adult children or nurses. If the whole point of the rite was to show loving service to women, then it would make much more sense for women to hand the priest pickle jars and have him get the lids off.
There is no good reason for an able-bodied adult woman to have her feet washed and dried in public by a man. It is not practical. It is not according to local custom. It has no symbolic value that the universal Church intends. In fact, it hides the priestly meaning that the universal Church intends. And when the women selectae forget they are wearing nylon stockings–as sometimes happens–the whole rite is rendered ridiculous.
I have three foot-washing horror stories. The first was when I was in a parish where the priest decided that we the congregation would all wash and dry each others hands. So I obediently toddled up–obedience being one of those pre-Vatican II things clerics still promote among their congregations–and found myself washing and drying the hands of a strange man who smirked all the way through. To this day I am not sure if he was simply embarrassed or getting a kind of anti-feminist and maybe even sexual kick.
The second was when I was a ministry intern and the call came down from on high that I should volunteer to have my feet washed at Holy Thursday Mass. At the time I was going through some Drama with a male religious who had a crush on me, and the last thing in the world I wanted was a cleric lovingly touching my feet or any other part of me, thanks. I politely declined to volunteer and then the man who asked me to volunteer contacted my supervisor to complain. She called me in on the carpet, and I gave her an earful. My feet, my choice. Unsurprisingly, she backed down.
The third was when I was giving a presentation to an RCIA class about Holy Thursday and talked about the symbolic nature of foot-washing, its inextricable tie to priesthood and the rubrics of viri selecti. And it turned out that some of the women there had been chosen to have their feet washed, and one was clearly horrified by the idea that a priest would be touching, washing and drying her feet. If I remember this correctly, she was assured by a woman RCIA instructor that it would be she, the woman RCIA instructor, who would wash her feet. For, lo, not only were women having their feet washed, women were also doing the priestly washing. And this rather made a complete nonsense out of everything I had just said.
Fortunately for my delicate nerves, I am not in suspense over how I might see the rubrics of the Latin Mass violated this evening. I am going to the Extraordinary Form. Thus, I will not be idly watching people having their feet washed while a choir sings “Come to the Water”. Missal in hand, I will be simply praying the Mass.