Saturday, March 30, 2013

The power of empty gestures

Pope Francis is getting kudos for footwashing. Never underestimate the power of an empty gesture.

i) To my knowledge, footwashing is a standard feature of the Maundy-Thursday Mass. Hence, this doesn’t say anything about the pope’s humility. He does it, not because he’s humble, but because that’s a liturgical requirement (i.e. the pedilavium). It would be surprising if he refrained from doing it.

ii) Footwashing is hardly confined to the church of Rome. Several Protestant denominations observe footwashing on Maundy-Thursday.

In addition, some Protestant denominations practice footwashing on a regular basis. Not just once a year.  

iii) However, some commentators praise Francis for washing the feet of prisoners and AIDS patients. Well, what about that?

iv) To begin with, washing their feet while the cameras are rolling doesn’t strike me as an exercise in humility. That’s calling attention to yourself.

Ironically, it’s quite possible to pridefully perform a rite that signifies humility. Spiritual showmanship. Doing it to prove to others what a humble guy you are.

v) In addition, why can’t AIDS patients wash their own feet? Is it because they are too weakened by the ravages of AIDS to care for themselves? But if that’s the case, then an annual, ritual ablution hardly meets their needs. Shouldn’t we be praising the hospice orderlies who care for them on a daily basis?

vi) For that matter, why should a man in his mid-70s be washing someone else’s feet? If push comes to shove, shouldn’t the younger generation wash his feet? People his age often suffer from arthritis. It isn’t easy for some of them to wash their feet or clip their toenails.

vii) Someone might object that I’m missing the point. The point of footwashing is the symbolism, and not because people need other people to wash their feet. Well, what about that?

For starters, does footwashing pack the same symbolic punch in a culture where most folks wear socks and shoes, bathe or shower once or twice daily? Where many women have pedicures and painted toenails?

Perhaps the closest analogy to 1C footwashing would be washing the feet of a street person or diabetic with foot disease.

viii)Moreover, if we’re really serious about the symbolism, shouldn’t we consider cross-cultural equivalents? 

ix) Is Jesus only concerned with symbolism? Not only did he wash the feet of the disciples, but he died for them.

What about orderlies in hospitals and nursing homes. Or janitors? Or mothers caring for their babies? Or an elderly husband or wife who cares for his failing spouse?  Isn’t that closer to the spirit of footwashing?


  1. It must be hard being a Jesuit. Now they have a pattern of being so understated, but never with out a deeply thought out and philosophized answer. In my understanding, they try to do the Zen of Catholicism. Of course being both of us the children of Christian history, the Jesuits have much more a burden of historic blunders than my "shoot of the Vine."

    Steve, I believe Pope Francis is chained to his traditions. Wouldn't it be amazing to find him soaking the elderly feet, defoliating, and nail clipping? So many of my elderly friends complain of feet that need upkeep, that they do not do themselves. They even hire a medical doctor to do the job. This surely would be a 21st century foot washing.

    I wonder what I should do---

    This Pope Francis must feel that so much in that Vatican is for show. I know he is convinced that it is for 'good reasons'. But he cannot escape that he knows what is 'showing good works'. Do you think that a good man who does showmanship good works must be grieved that it is not how the Scriptures say to do good works? Could his heart grow silent in his excuses? I fear for this executive office holder.

  2. I don't have an opinion on the issue of foot washing, but apparently the pope violated this or that rule by washing the feet of women, or an apparent Moslem, or whatever. Yet I'm reading Catholics defends this because he is, well, the pope.

    1. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if Catholics continued to defend the pope if he turned out to be the devil incarnate! I suppose it's a similar blind devotion to defending rocks that fall out of the sky as sacred. "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" and all that.

  3. I hear alot about Francis' humility. But isn't that somewhat incongruous? Are acts of humility recorded by photographers and disseminated by press release and social media? Some of this comes with the territory when you lead a denomination of a billion people. But even the position of leading a billion people seems to be devoid of humility at a certain level. As the saying goes; it's hard to be humble when you're so great.