Saturday, January 23, 2016

On the overdue rubrical change to the Mandatum Rite

Recently Pope Francis wrote a letter to the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, Robert Cardinal Sarah, regarding the Rite of the "Washing of the Feet" (i.e., the Mandatum Rite), which takes place during the Liturgy of the Mass of the Lord's Supper, which is celebrated on Holy Thursday. The Holy Father's letter is currently only available in Italian. In his letter, Pope Francis directs Cardinal Sarah to amend the rubrics of the Roman Missal that spell out the details of the Mandatum Rite so that women can officially be included among those who have their feet washed in this sacred and solemn rite. In accord with the Holy Father's direction, the Congregation issued a decree, In Missa in Cena Domini (available only in Latin) implementing this change.

The decree went into effect on 6 January and so will apply to the Mandatum Rite celebrated this Holy Thursday, which will be observed by Catholics on 24 March. At least for most parishes in the United States and, I suppose, elsewhere, this is a mere formalization of a practice long since established. Way back in 1987, the USCCB, then the NCCB, determined that the Latin phrase viri selecti in the Roman Missal, which literally means "selected men," is to be understood as applying to both men and women, "in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world."

At least to me, what the Pontifically-directed change in rubrics highlights is the equalizing nature of baptism, expounded perhaps most clearly in the third chapter of St Paul's Letter to the Galatians (see Gal 3:27-29). To wit: women are full-fledged disciples of Jesus Christ. Baptism, to which Confirmation is closely related, is the fundamental sacrament of Christian life, not ordination. Catholics, too, believe in the priesthood of all the baptized. The ministerial, or ordained, priesthood is at the service of the baptismal priesthood.

The witness of women in the Gospels shows that they are often the very best disciples. The witness of the Desert Mothers and other women in the early Church confirm this even further, as do faithful women in our own day. This change does nothing with regard to ordaining women. Sticking with sound theology, Pope Francis has time and again been foursquare against what he calls the "clericalization" of women's roles, as well as clericalizing the roles of many dedicated laypersons, men and women.There is simply no need to do this. I think this needs to be a particular point of discernment for prospective permanent deacons.

The prominence of women in the Church is one of those aspects of history that is either frequently ignored or grossly exaggerated. I read an article just yesterday that, on one hand, does a very nice job articulating the radical nature of female discipleship in the early Church, but, on the other hand, distorts and exaggerates the role of women in various ways: "The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers Who Have Been Written Out of Christianity's Early History." With regard to women bishops, the author just states it in passing as a fact with no explanation. Of course, the Greek word episkopos simply means "overseer." It may surprise some to learn that the ancient Church, for the most part, was much more sexually segregated than the Church is today. Nonetheless, women often exercised ecclesial authority over other women. So-called women deacons were women set apart - whether by ordination or not is a matter of dispute (they do not seem to have served in liturgy) - to minister to other women, like baptizing them. At that time people were baptized naked. They also served women in circumstances that it would not be appropriate for a man to minister, like visiting a single woman at home.

From its beginning, cenobitic monasticism has had priors and prioresses (abbots and abbesses). They exercised, as they still do today, an episcopal-like function over members of their communities. The author of the article is wrong to state that even today ecclesially-approved women's orders are closely watched over by men. Such orders are not. They are self-governing, according to their approved constitutions, just the same as men's orders. The fact remains that the Church was perhaps the only place, apart from the household, where women held any authority at all. This probably remained true until about the middle of the 20th century.

Linking back to the change in the rubrics for the Mandatum Rite, my main point is that the change points to the fact that baptism is the great equalizer. Women are full-up disciples of Jesus Christ, empowered by Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. The essence of ordained ministry is service to the rest of the Church. Those of us who have received the sacrament of orders are ordained to empower, not exercise power over, others. Here is Christian leadership summarized by Jesus: "The greatest among you must be your servant" (Matt 23:11). It is never a question of equality! Men and women, while different in important respects, our differences being deeply embedded in nature, are equals.

The only justification I could think of for excluding women from the Mandatum Rite is if the rite was restricted to the bishop celebrating it in his Cathedral and washing the feet of 12 priests. Or, in an even more concentrated manner, if the celebration of the rite was restricted to the pope washing the feet of 12 bishops. But this is not the theology of the passage from chapter 13 of St John's Gospel, the Gospel for the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday- the Gospel in which there are no apostles, only disciples, even if the twelve are a select group of disciples.

I have to admit that I was disheartened somewhat when someone on a Facebook thread, opposing the change, wrote that the inclusion of woman turned the Mandatum Rite into a "tawdry pantomime." I would counter that for the vast majority of Roman Catholics our annual celebration of the Mandatum Rite is a solemn and sacred event. Indeed, the Mass of the Lord's Supper is about the institution of the Eucharist. Our Gospel reading for that holy night - John 13:1-15 - tells of Jesus washing the feet of twelve of his disciples. For St John, this is the institution narrative of the Eucharist. In light of this, I would ask, Why 12 laymen to the exclusion of women, especially when one links Jesus' act of foot washing with baptism, something the sacred author of John's Gospel clearly does? The Church is apostolic not only because of apostolic succession, but because, as a result of our baptism, we are sent: "If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it" (John 13:14-17).

Another major theme of the Mass of the Lord's Supper, closely linked with the institution of the Eucharist, is the institution of the priesthood. This, too, at least in my view, harmonizes perfectly well with the rubrical change. The priest, acting in persona Christi captis, in washing the feet of people selected from among those he is called to serve, performs the humblest act of service for them. By so doing, he exhorts them to go forth and serve others. Ideally, he is assisted in the foot-washing by a deacon. Hence, a deacon is the servant of the servant who performs the humblest of services (deacon as dogsbody?). Let's be honest, the priest had no authority or intention to ordain 12 laymen to the priesthood, or even to pretend they were ministerial priests, when he performed the foot-washing for men only.

Let's not forget that Mass is called Mass after the Latin word misa, which refers to being dismissed. John's institution narrative, with its strong tie to baptism, is about being sent to serve others, which, along with apostolic succession, is what makes the Church apostolic. At the end of Mass we are all sent. As a deacon the only time I use the simple dismissal "Go in peace" is during Lent and Advent (and during Easter with the sung Alleluia) the rest of the time I use the other approved dismissals: "Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life," or "Go in peace, proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord."

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