Pope’s foot-wash a final straw for traditionalists

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Pope Francis washes the feet of 12 young offenders-- including two girls and two Muslims-- at a Rome prison in an unprecedented version of an ancient Easter ritual, seen as part of efforts to bring the Catholic Church closer to those in need. AFP


In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis washes the foot of an inmate at the juvenile detention center of Casal del Marmo, Rome, Holy Thursday, March 28, 2013 in a ritual that he celebrated for years as archbishop and is continuing now that he is pope. Two of the 12 were young women. The Mass at the Casal del Marmo facility in Rome has 46 young men and women, many of them Gypsies or North African migrants. The Vatican says the 12 selected for the rite weren’t necessarily Catholic. AP

VATICAN CITY—In an unprecedented move, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 youths, including a Muslim girl, during the Last Supper Mass Thursday in a correctional for minors in Rome, reenacting the gesture of Jesus Christ of washing the feet of his 12 all-male apostles, including Saint Peter, the first pope.

Earlier on Thursday, the Pope celebrated Holy Chrism Mass with some 2,000 priests based in Rome, including Filipino priests led by Fr. Gregory Ramon Gaston, rector of the Pontifice Collegio Filippino.

The Pope will celebrate his first Easter Mass on Sunday, during which he is expected to deliver the traditional papal address “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and to the World) as well as send his Easter greetings in the major languages to all of the churches of the world.

The Pope washed the feet of 12 juveniles, 10 boys and two girls, detained at the Casal del Marmo Penitential Institute for Minors, where he celebrated the traditional “Coena Domini”—the Lord’s Supper—Mass, the first of the Easter Triduum.

The Mass was closed to the press, although the Vatican press office said “around 50 boys and girls” attended.

Of the two girls washed by the Pope, one was Italian, the other, according to the press office, “an Eastern European.”

But the institute’s chaplain, Fr. Gaetano Greco, a Franciscan tertiary Capuchin of Our Lady of Sorrows, later disclosed that the Eastern European girl was a Muslim Serbian. No pope in history has washed the feet of a woman, much less a Muslim.

In his homily, the Pope made no reference to the religious beliefs of the youthful offenders, saying that he was doing it to follow the example of Jesus Christ.

“This is the Lord’s example,” the Pope said. “He is the most important one and He washes [other’s] feet because those who are the highest among us must be at the service of others. Washing someone’s feet is [saying], ‘I am at your service’.”

“There is no better way to show his service for the smallest, for the least fortunate,” explained Father Greco.

The visit to the detention center followed through what Pope Francis, who was elected in the papal conclave of March 13 after Pope Benedict XVI stepped down last Feb 28 due to old age, has indicated would be the theme of  his papacy—helping the poor and the lowly.

The Pope, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, said he took “Francis” as papal name after Saint Francis of Asissi, the founder of the Order of Friars Minor, or the Franciscans, who led the mendicant (or begging) movement of friars along with St. Dominic de Guzman and the Dominicans, to reform the medieval Church.

Saint Francis kissed the sores of lepers in order to show them that Jesus Christ cared for them. He also went to the Middle East during the Crusades in order to convert the Muslims.

Francis’ decision to disregard church law and wash the feet of two girls — 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 he considered the botched interpretations of the Second Vatican Council’s modernizing reforms.

“The official end of the reform of the reform — by example,” ”Rorate Caeli” lamented in its report on Francis’ Holy Thursday ritual.

A like-minded commentator in Francis’ native Argentina, Marcelo Gonzalez at International Catholic Panorama, reacted to Francis’ election with this phrase: “The Horror.” Gonzalez’s beef? While serving as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, the then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s efforts to revive the old Latin Mass so dear to Benedict and traditionalists were “non-existent.”

Virtually everything he has done since being elected pope, every gesture, every decision, has rankled traditionalists in one way or another.

The night he was chosen pope, March 13, 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. The cape has since come to symbolize his rejection of the trappings of the papacy and to some degree the pontificate of Benedict XVI, since the German pontiff relished in resurrecting many of the liturgical vestments of his predecessors.

Francis 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. For traditionalists who fondly recall the days when popes were carried on a sedan chair, that may have stung. In the days since, he has called for “intensified” dialogue with Islam — a gesture that rubs traditionalists the wrong way because they view such a heavy focus on interfaith dialogue as a sign of religious relativism.

Francis may have rubbed salt into the wounds with his comments at the Good Friday procession at Rome’s Colosseum, which re-enacts Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, praising “the friendship of our Muslim brothers and sisters” during a prayer ceremony that recalled the suffering of Christians in the Middle East.

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 who under Benedict 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.

Meanwhile, during the Holy Chrism Mass on Thursday, the Pope gave the same message and urged priests “to go out of themselves” and reach out to others.

He  warned Catholic priests that “the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, lose heart and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties” comes from seldom going out of oneself, which leads to “missing out on the best of our people”.

Pope Francis urged priests to be “shepherds who have the smell of their sheep.”

The Chrism Mass is traditionally celebrated in all the churches and cathedrals throughout the world, in which priests renew the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience that they made at their ordination.

The Mass also blesses oils used in Catholic rituals such as  anointing catechumens and the sick. Also blessed is the chrism oil—olive oil scented with balsam—used to anoint those being baptized, confirmed, or receiving Holy Orders.

The Pope in fact reminded priests that the Holy Chrism Mass was a reminder of their ordination and their duty to serve others as part of their priestly or “anointed” ministry.

“When we put on our simple chasuble,” he said, “it might well make us feel, upon our shoulders and in our hearts, the burdens and the faces of our faithful people, our saints and martyrs, of which we have so many in our times.”

The Pope also noted how “the beauty of all these liturgical things… is not so much about trappings and fine fabrics” as it is destined to the action expected of priests. “The ointment, dear brothers, is not intended just to make us fragrant, much less to be kept in a jar, for then it would become rancid… and the heart bitter.”

For many of the 2,000 priests based in Rome, either members of its archdiocese or working or studying there, it was the first time for them to celebrate Mass with the Pope, much less meet him.

Filipino priest Fr. Joseph Tan of the Archdiocese of Cebu said the experience was “awesome.”

“I will be 22 years in the priesthood this year, so making the renewal of promise together with so many other priests and before the Pope is totally awesome,” said Father Tan, who’s taking up higher communication studies at Santa Croce and staying at the Pontifice Collegio Filippino, where Filipino priests studying in Roman pontifical institutes are mostly boarded.

Also on Thursday, the Pope made his first appointment of a bishop, naming Mario Poli, 66, to succeed him as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Formerly bishop of Santa Rosa, Poli is head of the Argentine Church’s Episcopal Commission for Catechesis and Biblical Ministry.

Pope Francis also approved his first batch of people to be put on the path to sainthood. Approved for beatification were 63 people, mostly martyrs of the Spanish Civil War, Nazism and Communism.

The biggest batch comes from the religious persecution in Spain (1934, 1936-39) that triggered the civil war, mostly Franciscan Capuchins, Laborer Sacred Heart priests, and the bishop and diocesan priests of Avila, Spain.

Also to be beatified are Salesians killed during the Nazi German occupation of Italy, and a Dominican biblical scholar killed by the Nazis in Dachau, Germany.

Also to be beatified are martyrs killed in Communist Eastern Europe.

On Good Friday, Francis Francis recited the Passion of Christ—the story of the last hours of Jesus’s life— in St Peter’s Basilica and later presided over the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, at the ancient Roman Coliseum, where thousands of Christians were martyred in Roman times.

There were certainly none of those trappings on display Thursday at the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention facility in Rome.

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,” noted 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” by simply ignoring the church’s own rules.

“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,” he said. “Pope Francis knows that he is setting an example.”

The inclusion of women in the rite is problematic 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 proudly holding up as evidence 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 clearly don’t like yet can’t do much about lest they be openly voicing dissent with the pope.

By Thursday evening, Peters was saying that Francis had merely “disregarded” the law — not violated it.

The Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a traditionalist blogger who has never shied from picking fights with priests, bishops or cardinals when liturgical abuses are concerned, had to measure his comments when the purported abuser was the pope himself.

“Before liberals and traditionalists both have a spittle-flecked nutty, each for their own reasons, try to figure out what he is trying to do,” Zuhlsdorf wrote in a conciliatory piece.

But, in characteristic form, he added: “What liberals forget in their present crowing is that even as Francis makes himself — and the church — more popular by projecting (a) compassionate image, he will simultaneously make it harder for them to criticize him when he reaffirms the doctrinal points they want him to overturn.”

One of the key barometers of how traditionalists view Francis concerns his take on the pre-Vatican II Latin Massachusetts. The Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that brought the church into the modern world, allowed the celebration of the Mass in the vernacular rather than Latin. In the decades that followed, the so-called Tridentine Rite fell out of use almost entirely.

Traditionalist Catholics who were attached to the old rite blame many of the ills afflicting the Catholic Church today — a drop in priestly vocations, empty pews in Europe and beyond — on the liturgical abuses that they say have proliferated with the celebration of the new form of Massachusetts.

In a bid to reach out to them, Benedict in 2007 relaxed restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Massachusetts… The move was aimed also at reconciling with a group of schismatic traditionalists, the Society of St. Pius X, who split from Rome precisely over the Vatican II reforms, in particular its call for Mass in the vernacular and outreach to other religions, especially Judaism and Islam.

Benedict took extraordinary measures to bring the society back under Rome’s wing during his pontificate, but negotiations stalled.

The society has understandably reacted coolly to Francis’ election, reminding the pope that his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was told by Christ to go and “rebuild my church.” For the society, that means rebuilding it in its own, pre-Vatican II vision.

The head of the society for South America, the Rev. Christian Bouchacourt, was less than generous in his assessment of Francis.

“He cultivates a militant humility, but can prove humiliating for the church,” Bouchacourt said in a recent article, criticizing the “dilapidated” state of the clergy in Buenos Aires and the “disaster” of its seminary.

“With him, we risk to see once again the Masses of Paul VI’s pontificate, a far cry from Benedict XVI’s efforts to restore to their honor the worthy liturgical ceremonies.”

Originally posted at 9:33 a.m.

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