National Catholic Register


The Church Needs a Foot-Washing

BY Tim Drake

| Posted 4/1/10 at 1:00 PM


Perhaps predictably, in an age which does not understand why the priestly fraternity is male, a controversy has erupted in the Diocese of Venice, Fla. There, Bishop Frank Dewane, to the consternation of many, reaffirmed in a letter to his priests that this evening’s foot-washing is reserved for “chosen men.”

“Chosen men.” Men who’ve sacrificed the tranquility of domestic married life for a greater good. Men who are set apart, who do battle against evil, safeguarding both Christ made manifest in the Eucharist, and Christ’s mother Mary – the sacred feminine.

The modern Church sees the foot-washing passage as if through a pair of glasses with one lens missing. The modern interpretation views the event only as an act of service. Christ makes himself a “slave,” and washes the feet of his apostles.

It is certainly this, but oh, so much more. If we would re-read the complete passage in John’s Gospel and replace the missing lens in our glasses, we would see a lot more. And that more would help the Church in the struggle that she presently finds herself in.

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Scripture tells us… “In the beginning….” Well, in the beginning of the passage in John, the story clearly tells us that Satan has entered one of the Twelve.

The middle part of the story tells us of the foot-washing. In Luke’s recounting of the events, we’re told of a dispute among the apostles. They are arguing about who is the greatest. Christ tells them not to lord their authority over others, but to serve. Hence, the focus on service.

At the end of this particular passage, Christ dismisses Judas from the company of the Twelve. He is expelled, you might say, in an act of priestly fraternal correction. Begone, Satan.

To view Christ’s action as one merely of service is to, like Peter, misinterpret his full intention.

For the act, in addition to demonstrating service, is akin to baptism. Christ is cleansing that which is dirty – not only the feet, but also the community gathered around him in the Upper Rome. There is one among the Twelve who is unclean, and Christ is performing a kind of exorcism, cleansing the priestly fraternity of the evil within its midst.

“Every encounter with Jesus is always a confrontation with evil,” says Father Tony Marques, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Harrisonburg, Va. “When we’re baptized, we renounce sin first, and then we profess our faith in Christ.”

Viewed this way, the foot-washing becomes Christ’s confrontation with, and expulsion of, evil.

To understand the story as one merely of service and not of expulsion is to succumb to what Cardinal John Henry Newman described as “the religion of the day.” In one of his sermons, Newman explains how we have dropped the religion of austerity for a religion of benevolence. We want only to see the “bright side” of the Gospel, while ignoring the “dark side.” In so doing, says Newman, there is no longer a fear of the Lord, no longer a deep hatred of sin, and no longer adherence to doctrinal truth.

We’ve traded the expulsion of Judas for the service-oriented message. No where is this clearer than in some parishes across the country, where the foot-washing ceremony has taken on comical proportions, such as the parish where it became a 30-minute drama where everyone was invited to come up to have their feet washed, and those who came up were then asked to wash the feet of the person who came behind them. In other parishes, the “chosen men” have been replaced with neither, predominantly women and youth.

How ironic that we miss the expulsion part of the story, especially during a Holy Week which has been dominated by news reports of decades-old clergy sexual abuse.

Much of that coverage has unfairly attempted to tarnish Pope Benedict XVI, the very man who has done more to address this problem than nearly any other.

Make no mistake. Abuse occurred. And religious leaders, in many cases, covered it up. It crosses nearly every religious order line – the Benedictines, the Legionaries, the Jesuits, and the diocesan priesthood.

Judas wasn’t sent to a counselor for treatment. He wasn’t reassigned. He was dismissed from the company of the Twelve.

The Church is in need of a thorough foot-washing.

So, let’s begin the cleansing. Let it begin with any clergy or religious who have either abused or made it possible for others to abuse.

But, let’s not stop there.

The universal Church needs remarkable honesty, complete transparency, and a foot-washing unlike one it’s ever seen. Let’s make sure that the cleansing is thorough.

In addition to clergy who’ve abandoned Christ and His Church, let’s also have a foot-washing of our other Catholic institutions as well. Let’s cleanse the charities, hospitals, and universities, which are rife with board members and faculty members who, like Judas, say one thing and do another, thereby “abusing” those in their charge in other ways.

Let’s also have a foot-washing for all those who hold public office, while advancing policies and legislation that are directly opposed to the teachings of the Church, yet who present themselves, as Judas did, for Holy Communion.

For the scandal doesn’t begin and end with sexual abusers. All those who purport to be Catholic, yet advocate, teach, or practice things against the faith are causing scandal of another kind.

Judas allowed his feet to be cleansed, but not his heart. Isn’t it the same for all Catholics who hold positions of authority, yet continue to advocate positions which are in dire opposition to the teachings of the Church?

Somehow, over the past 40 years, we’ve been fed and consumed the one-eyed Gospel.

May we open both eyes, “so that those who do not see might see.” And may the cleansing begin.