Catholic Prayers for the New Evangelization

"Catholic Prayers for the New Evangelization"

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Holy Thursday: Christ, not Correctness

With the decree In Missa in Cena Domini, Pope Francis modified the rubrics regarding the ritual of the washing of feet on Holy Thursday, a ritual which may take place within the Mass of the Lord's Supper.  The decree of the Holy Father extends the participation in the rite beyond the previously mandated "twelve men" (viri) to include a representation of the whole People of God: ordained, consecrated, lay, elderly and young people, healthy and sick persons, men and women.  His intention is to allow the rite to demonstrate the role of humble service shown by Jesus to the Apostles and taken up by His priests for the well-being and salvation of all people.  The priest is responsible on judgment day not only for his own soul but will answer for what he did to save those entrusted to his care.  Priesthood is a life lived for others - all others without prejudice. 

While this change might be conceived as a welcome inclusion and deeper symbolism, there is a wider context and deeper implication to be considered.  It is important to take note that Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments - the dicastery responsible for issuing the decree - clarified on February 26th that each pastor "has to decide in accord with his own conscience, and according to the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast."  Cardinal Sarah's remarks further clarify the discrepancy between the original decree and the explanatory document issued by Archbishop Roche, secretary of the same congregation.  The decree allows for the possibility of washing the feet of a variety of persons, whereas the explanatory document makes it appear obligatory ("pastors may" vs. "it is for pastors to choose").  Selecting a group of "washees" that represents each part of the People of God is an option for pastors, as, in fact, is the entire foot washing ritual itself.  Permission is not obligation. 

As each pastor makes his choice, he is informed by conscience and by history, says the Cardinal.  What is the "purpose for which the Lord instituted the feast"?  Holy Thursday is the birth-day of the Priesthood, which precedes the birth of the Church from the side of Christ as He hung upon the Cross and the evangelizing mission of the Church sparked by the flame of the Spirit at Pentecost.  The ritual of feet-washing, along with the consecration of the Eucharist, is a priestly ritual.  Jesus commands His Apostles - the first bishops/priests - to memorialize Him in two important ways: by calling down the Spirit to make Him present through the words of consecration under the species of bread and wine ("Do this in memory of me.") and to humble themselves to serve His flock, entrusted to their care, in the person of the Good Shepherd ("As I have done for you, so you ought to do.").  Through the priesthood of the ordained, the perpetual institution of the Passover is celebrated in the Sacrifice of the Mass and the living image of the Good Shepherd is alive in our midst. 

Each pastor should feel totally free and open to choose twelve men or a more outwardly representative group of persons for the feet washing.  However, in his reflection deep within his heart, he must keep in mind the priestly character of the day, the event and its individual elements.  Holy Thursday celebrated the institution of the Eucharist and of the Priesthood.  The rituals of the Mass for that day are fundamentally priestly actions.  This is why the washing of feet - as with the confecting of the Eucharist - is reserved to the clergy.  As we see the priest washing the feet of parishioners, we see both a historical symbol of what Jesus actually did and a spiritual symbol of what Jesus and all His priests do for the Church.  In the priest we are meant to see the Lord serving His Bride, the Church. 

In conscience, each priest may have his own reasons for the decision he makes regarding this ritual, which might be valid if they are in accord with our Catholic tradition.  It could be argued, for example, that choosing twelve men maintains a clear representation of the precise historical action of Jesus and also manifests the humble service of the priest - who ministers in persona Christi capitis (Christ the head) of the Mystical Body, the Church, and father to his parish flock - toward the men of the parish, who are the heads of their families, the domestic churches.  The men, in turn, are called to "wash the feet" of their brides as Jesus cleanses His Bride the Church by His saving Passion. 

Some have argued that the Last Supper prototype restricts the meaning and obligation of foot washing to the fraternity of the priesthood.  Jesus commanded that the Apostles do what He had done "for one another" not for others outside the Twelve.  Christianity demands that every believer serve all other human persons.  Priestly fraternity demands that every priest serve his brothers.  Yet, the implication of the Last Supper washing of feet is that the priest, representing Jesus, will stoop to do even the most undesirable tasks for his flock, even to the point of smelling like the feet of sheep.  In conscience, a pastor may legitimately choose to maintain the previous discipline of washing the feet of men to emphasize the role of men as fathers of the domestic church and maintain the historical example of Jesus washing the feet of the male apostles. 

The recent papal decree provides a context for discussing a broader pair of inter-related issues, namely, the granting of permission following the violation of existing law, which gives the appearance of a concession to heteropraxis, and the interpretation of permissions as obligations. 

There are three notable examples of this trend in recent history. 

1. The 1964 Vatican document Inter Oecumenici directed that church buildings should be constructed with the altar away from the wall in order to accommodate Mass celebrated facing the people.  No change in orientation was required.  Mass facing the people was documented a decade before it was permitted.  This one sentence in one document was used as justification not only for a universal change in the direction of the liturgy but the destruction of countless pieces of irreplaceable sacred art.  The result: Catholics today in large measure do not know Whom and for what purpose they worship. 

2. Permission was given for lay "Eucharistic Ministers" to distribute the Sacred Host and Precious Blood in the absence of a sufficient number of priests.  An further indult was granted (and, thankfully, later rescinded - not that anyone noticed) in the USA permitting EMHCs to purify the sacred vessels, well after it was already being done in many parishes.  The permission given for lay distributers in cases of true necessity was turned into an obligation by those who believed that the Priesthood of the Baptized was most fully exercised by the laity filling multifarious roles in the sanctuary rather than evangelizing the marketplace.  So much so that, in some parishes, 12 ministers distribute Holy Communion to 500 blank stares in under 5 minutes.  The result: Catholics in large measure do not know the difference between the Bread of Life and Panera.

3. Permission was given by the Vatican several years ago for females to serve Mass, long after "altar girls" were common in many parishes.  The permission was again interpreted by the inclusion-oriented to be an obligation.  Altar girls further evolved into the scenario of a middle-aged woman flaunting inappropriate attire and presenting the Missal, which is resting on her bosom, to the priest inches from his face as he stands at the chair.  Of course, all the young people and some of the adults have the very best intentions.  But not everyone does.  When such decisions are made without careful consideration, to door is opened to a variety of problems.  The result: Catholic young men have no training ground in which to observe the priest and listen for the possible call to priesthood, without the distractions we all know young women provide. 

What do these three have in common?  We have them - Mass facing the people, altar girls, proliferation of lay distributers - not because they are fabulous ideas and essential elements of Catholicism but because someone believed we need to be more inclusive.  No one is more inclusive than Jesus Christ, who DIED for ALL.  Fidelity to all that fosters the deepest faith in Him need not be construed as exclusion of others. 
Our service of God needs to be thoughtful.  We do things in the Church for the right theological and spiritual reasons, not because people think we need to adapt to the world's standards.  Reverence, sanctity, deeper knowledge of Jesus - these are the reasons for what we do.  Liturgical discipline is to be informed by theology, otherwise improper discipline itself fosters bad theology.  Lex credendi, lex orandi.  Adoring the Almighty together, fostering vocations to the priesthood and guarding against abuse of the Holy Eucharist are priorities for priests and lay persons which help to form men and women into saints through an experience the richness of the Church's authentic tradition. 
How can the washing of the feet, and all other rituals of the Church, foster the same growth in holiness?  This is the question this discussion brings to the fore. 

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