Whose feet did your Priest wash?
by Frances Correia
This year on Holy Thursday Pope Francis celebrated the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper in an asylum centre. Once again he used this key moment in the liturgical year, the moment when we remember the institution of the Eucharist, to model a profoundly Christian approach to the world.
He washed the feel of migrants, of asylum seekers. He washed the feet of Christians and non -Christians. He washed the feet of men and women.
Two millennia ago when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he broke all the accepted norms of his society, and did the unthinkable. As Jesus himself says in the scriptures, ‘So if I your Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’ (John 13:14). Pope Francis reminds us of this counter cultural Jesus. He too acts in ways that are against tradition, against culture. In opening up the possibility of allowing women to have their feet washed by a priest, in washing the feet of asylum seekers, of Muslims and Hindus, Francis is breaking with perceived ideas about who is acceptable.
His message that evening that, ‘we are all children of the same God’ is a radical message of innate human dignity. Pope Francis is using the ritual of the washing of the feet to engage directly with narratives of patriarchy, racism, and religious intolerance. These narratives are all at play in our world today interacting with each other slightly differently in different contexts to maintain people’s sense of right and power.
So for instance how patriarchy is understood in the west, may be different to how it is understood in Asia, yet in both places Francis’ invitation to include women in this symbolic moment in the church’s liturgy has had an impact and certain cultural sensitivities will be affected. Wherever she is, the Church is offered the choice to be like Jesus a counter cultural agent, or to stay within the safe boundaries of cultural expectation.
Likewise, the issue of asylum seekers is we know one that is fraught with differing tensions. In Europe asylum seeks may have projected onto them fears of terrorism, here in South Africa they are victims of xenophobic violence rooted in fears of economic insecurity. In both contexts we see how the outsider, the other, the person who looks and sounds different has always been a person easy to victimise, to blame as a scapegoat for current social and economic woes.
In washing the feet of non-Christians and non-Catholics Pope Francis is undermining an attitude of personal sanctity. He opens us up to the reality that ‘we are all children of God’. That no matter our faith we are all loved by God.
What does this really mean? How can we see in the other, no matter their difference in gender, race or belief another creature, like me, created in the image and likeness of God. Pope Francis is challenging us to let go of our cultural stereotypes, our innate prejudices, and to see others, all others, as our brothers and sisters.