Pope's making history again - washing the feet of a woman and a Muslim.
What does this signify?
The washing of feet is an optional rite that is rooted in two different traditions:
a) the “Mandatum Pauperam,” or washing of the feet
of poor people, and
b) the “Mandatum Fratrum,” the washing of the feet of “the
brothers.” (e.g., the woman who washes Jesus' feet with her tears)
When the rite was folded into the Mass in 1955, women weren't
allowed in the sanctuary, so the rite of foot washing took on a
third meaning: Jesus' washing of apostle's feet at the Last Supper.
That is, it was now associated with the ordination of priests.
Pope Francis is dispensing with the new, third meaning and
emphasizing the first two.
For Christians, a brother or sister is a baptized person, so when he
washes a Christian's feet, his washing the feet of a brother or
But in Christian theology, the poorest of the poor is the person who
hasn't heard or accepted the Gospel. Muslims aren't baptized, that is, they haven't accepted the Gospel. So, when he washes the feet of a Muslim, he's washing the feet of
the poorest persons.
Muslims might respond in one of two ways:
a) Some Muslims see this in terms of a Christian serving a Muslim.
Since Muslims consider non-Muslims second-class citizens, a
Christian who acts like a servant towards a Muslim is acting in a perfectly
appropriate way. He is acting like a dhimmi, as he should.
b) Other Muslims see Christian acts of physical charity as a serious threat. When a Christian feeds, clothes, or otherwise physically
cares for a Muslim, this "perturbs the mentality of a good Muslim"
because it tends to make the Muslim think that Christianity may be
true. Physical acts of charity lead the Muslim away from Islam. Christian charity is such a serious threat that in 2010 there was a “fatwa promulgated by 7,300
Moroccan Muslim doctors who recently declared that Christian
charity ought to be considered religious terrorism.”
What Christians call charity, Muslims call terrorism. Worse, not only is this an act of physical charity, some Muslims may be aware that this act can be seen as denigrating Muslims, casting them as the theologically poorest of the poor, unfamiliar with the ways of God. Even though it is intended as an act of service, it could be taken as a theological insult. In fact, given that Muslim nurses find the simple act of washing hands to be an offense against modesty, it could be taken as an insult in more than one way
The Pope is certainly aware of this element.
By returning to the traditional meaning of the washing of the feet,
what Francis is doing is very seriously engaging the Muslim world,
and he's taking a significant risk to do so.