The obvious question, "Will this lead to women's ordination?
It's interesting that even the unbaptized recognize a link between the washing of feet on Holy Thursday and the ordination of priests. Hmm...
But, enough of that.
Here's my answer to the newscaster's question.
Now, you'll notice that I actually skirted around the issue without addressing it head-on.
That's mostly because:
- there's never enough time in television interviews,
- any mention of Islam makes news reporters uncomfortable. In this case, although you can't see it on the tape, the reporter physically blenched when I said "Islam", and immediately looked down at her notes, instead of looking me in the eye as she did for the rest of the interview. The physical recoil was so great that I nearly lost my train of thought. Quite humorous, actually.
- I don't want to publicly trash something the Pope's done on the air, nor do I wish to do so here.
First, the act itself strikes a blow against the idea that he is a humble man. A humble man bows before the laws of the Church. If it is within his power to change the law, he changes the law first, then follows it. As a friend of mine pointed out, this is what Benedict did to hasten the meeting of the conclave - he took the trouble of issuing a motu proprio that changed the law so that the early conclave meeting could happen.
Pope Francis did none of this.
He just refused to follow the law.
We can call this many things: wise, insightful, pastoral, strange, inscrutable, etc.
We cannot call this humble.
The Pope certainly realizes this. But he is willing to put his entire reputation on the line in order to accomplish something. What?
Second, as I guessed, Pope Francis' Way of the Cross Good Friday address provides further evidence that this Holy Thursday event was really meant to reach out to Islam. That interpretation explains quite a lot. If Pope Francis is looking to use Holy Week as outreach to evangelize Muslims, that would explain why he chose to celebrate this as a private Mass in a prison, instead of at St. Peter's.
After all, if he just wanted to wash women's feet, that would be easy. There are any number of women that could have been brought into St. Peter's, the deed would be accomplished, and let the brouhaha begin! But he didn't bring women into St. Peter's. He went to a prison instead.
This is critically important to understanding what happened.
The Holy Thursday Mass begins Triduum, the most important three days in the liturgical calendar. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday - these days are so closely united they are considered one day: Triduum. These liturgical celebrations are the hub around which the wheeled Church revolves, they are the common patrimony of the Church. Indeed, the climax of the period, Holy Saturday Vigil, is considered the "mother of all feasts", the summit of the Church's life, the source from which every Sunday Mass throughout the year draws its power. And Holy Thursday Mass uniquely commemorates the institution of not one, but TWO of the seven sacraments: both the sacrament of Holy Orders, necessary for the conferral of most other sacraments, and the sacrament of the Eucharist itself, the source and summit of Christian life.
But Pope Francis celebrated the beginning of this centrally important liturgical period as if it were a small, family Mass. Celebrating this extremely important liturgy in private instead of in public is much, much more unprecedented than the washing of even a Muslim woman's feet in the optional rite which is the Mandatum. If Pope Francis meant his Holy Thursday celebration to be a model, that is, if priests and bishops around the world were to model THIS aspect of the Pope's Holy Thursday example, no parish would see another Holy Thursday celebration. The idea that the Pope intended to model this kind of small, private Holy Thursday liturgy is a thought so crazy, I'm the only one I know who has bothered to point it out.
So, why do this?
Well, Holy Thursday's Mass only makes sense in light of Good Friday's remarks. At the end of the Way of the Cross, the Pope took time out to recall the wonderful welcome extended to Pope Benedict in Lebanon by "our Muslim brothers and sisters." Which is just a weird remark to throw into a Good Friday liturgy. Why devote roughly one-third to one-half your total remarks to the Muslims? And his Urbi et Orbi remarks are no less Islam-filled. Virtually every country he name in that indulgenced address involves Muslim violence.
The Good Friday remarks are especially interesting given that Muslims are biological brothers and sisters, but are NOT considered the spiritual brothers and sisters of Christians because they have not yet been baptized. We call Protestants "separated brethren" because they are brothers by baptism, if not by belief. Jews are "our elders brothers in the Faith" because the vine of Christianity grows from the root of Judaism. But Muslims... Muslims aren't brothers in the Faith. We have no spiritual communion with them, no spiritual heritage from them. So, during the commemoration of the Passion of the Christ, why make such a remark about Muslims?
He wanted to send a signal to the Muslims, a powerful signal. But the Vatican couldn't very well bring a Muslim woman into St. Peter's for Holy Thursday to participate in a Catholic liturgy. He had to go to her, and in such a way that she could not be held responsible. So, if the mountain would not come carrying Mohammed, then the Pope would travel to the mountain. And, before anyone complain about how this is out of step with Pope Benedict's example, we should keep in mind that "on Thursday, Francis had a "long and intense" telephone conversation with Benedict."
I suspect Pope-Emeritus Benedict is fine with this.
He might even have suggested it to Pope Francis.
But it is precisely in the signal itself that I lose confidence. If this action really is supposed to encourage dialogue with Islam, the action is likely to be much less effective than any Christian observer might suppose.
You see, anyone who has studied Islam and Islamic sharia law at any great length knows that Muslims consider women barely human. Her testimony is worth only half that of a man, sometimes it is worth nothing at all. She gets half the inheritance of a man. She is the source of sin in the Muslim community. Most Muslim jails are filled with women, not men. But if Muslim women are low value, non-Muslims are even lower. No matter how low Muslim women are valued, a Muslim woman is worth more than anyone who isn't Muslim.
So, as I thought about this on the drive home from the studio, I realized that having a Christian kiss a Muslim woman's foot and act like a slave towards her, yeah, that's not really not going to be a problem for anyone in the Muslim world. Christians are SUPPOSED to kiss the feet of every Muslim they meet, and they should thank Allah for the opportunity to do so. They are SUPPOSED to be slaves of the Muslims.
While the Christians will look on Pope Francis' act as attractive humility, the Muslims will see it as the natural state of things and not unusual in the least. If anything, Islam will see this as attractive servility.
Now, given the attitudes Christians are called to have towards others, and given Pope Francis' obvious intent, I'm hard-pressed to see how he could have acted differently. Service, love, humility and charity certainly are the messages of Christ. But, given how Muslims are commanded to behave towards others, I fail to see how they could take it otherwise either. Mohammed taught Muslims that they are naturally superior to all other peoples, all others are natural slaves to the Muslim. That makes Christian-Muslim dialogue very difficult.
Indeed, even St. Francis ultimately saw only one way to square this circle.
So, it was a huge gamble, but a gamble that - in a very real sense - had to be made. I assume Pope Francis understands just how little positive impact - from the evangelization point of view - his action is likely to have on Christian-Muslim dialogue. But as a Christian, was it not a gamble worth taking?
Certainly some Muslim women may see this as something that will attract them to Christianity, because no Muslim man would do what Pope Francis has done. But given how little freedom Muslim women have, right down to the fact that Sunni sharia law gives a woman's guardian has every right to kill her without repercussion (o1.2), (and that goes double for an apostate (o8.1, 8.4)), it's really not clear what positive evangelical consequences can be expected from the Pope's action.
South America is not a hotbed of Islamic activity. But, given the events of Holy Week, it's fairly clear that Pope Francis sees Islamic dialogue as critically important to his pontificate. Which makes his pontificate a rather terrifying thing to observe. Watching this unfold will be like watching a man walk through a minefield. That is, it will be desperately interesting.