Monsignor La Femina's canonical eye, which is, by nature, always a fundamentally and deeply theological eye, has uncovered in John the Evangelist's account of the Last Supper, a thorough and rich presentation of the Holy Eucharist as the complete fulfillment of the covenant which God first made with man at Mount Sinai and to which He has remained enduringly faithful in a manner beyond all of man's comprehension. Through his careful and thorough analysis of the juridical structure of the covenant, employing the best research of scholars of the Bible and of the Ancient Near East, Monsignor La Femina uncovers in Saint John's Last Supper account all the elements of the reality which is alone made present by the Eucharistic Sacrifice.
His juridical eye, in a particular way, has helped him to see how Saint John, through the analogy between the Washing of the Feet and the Eucharistic Sacrifice, expressed the deepest truth of the Mystery of Faith, the immeasurable and unceasing love of God for man, in which man is called to participate, in which man is called to live. The analogical relationship between the Washing of the Feet and the Institution of the Holy Eucharist means that one is not understood without the other, that the deepest meaning of one cannot be plumbed without plumbing the deepest meaning of the other.
1) the Washing of the Feet,
2) the Institution of the Eucharist and
3) the Institution of Holy Orders.
Does washing the feet of women, children and non-Catholics constitute a serious wound?
The element of selfless service which all followers of Christ should practice, and which many advocates of an "inclusive" ritual choose to focus on in order to concentrate people's attention on Christ's new commandment ("Love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you."), sometimes with a regrettable anti-Catholic agenda in mind (e.g., women's "ordination", or a misplaced emphasis on the priesthood of all believers to the detriment of Holy Orders), is still a valid aspect of the Gospel upon which to focus during the rite. However, the act of washing the feet of men provides the necessary opportunity for a deeper insight to be gained into the profound connection and unity between the actions mentioned, actions (sacraments) established by Christ Himself. The washing of men's feet preserves the iconography of the event, for one.
Why, then, should we avoid departing from the age-old practice? It might be helpful to reflect on the obvious:
- If women's feet are being washed, does that mean women should be considered for ordination? No. The Gospel narrative provides the necessary clarification that the ritual was performed only upon the Apostles. Bear in mind, too, that the action by which men are ordained has always been the laying on of hands on the head, not the washing of one's feet. The washing is a reminder, and indeed an important one, of the orientation of priests to the service of God and the Church, of a dying to self begun in the Sacrament of Baptism.
- The feet washing ritual, if it includes females, can be a reminder of baptism and the call to all Christians into service as missioners of the Gospel. That call may be better issued, for example, in the context of a homily rather than through a ritual intimately linked to the institution of Holy Orders.
- Should the washing of the feet of ordained men be celebrated less often and only during the Holy Thursday liturgy? Yes, probably. In many dioceses, Holy Thursday includes the blessing of Holy Oils (a Chrism Mass), a time when, ideally, all the priests of a diocese gather around their bishop as a sign of unity and their orientation to an apostle from whom their authority is derived. That liturgy is the perfect time and place to enact the washing of the feet of priests (only), since many priests will be present. Of course, the Liturgy would be longer, given the addition of rituals, but not by much. The connection between the three actions of Holy Thursday would, then, be better preserved than if the feet washing ritual is used to merely affirm how marvellous one's diocese or parish is at promoting social justice. Jesus put things into perspective when he said we will always have the poor with us. We can and should serve the poor, but when Christ is with us during the Mass, we are responding to Him. Let's give Him our full attention.
Christ is present in the poor, often in distressing disguise, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has said. In the Holy Eucharist we have Christ present, and we should kneel in adoration (i.e., make ourselves poor) before the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Our actions should focus on the person and action of Christ in our midst.
- Any departure from the traditional practice entails the risk of unjustifiable license being taken, license which culminates in abuse. While it is laudable to emphasize the idea of service to one's brother's and sisters, in a day and age when, for example, cats and dogs are understood by some to be persons the same as humans, subjecting the ritual washing of feet to any and every distorted view will likely result in an abuse and a mockery of Christ's action. Surely we do not need to give those who hate the Church any additional opportunity to attack that which is holy.