• John Thavis

Making the church less ‘self-referential’

With every act of his pontificate, Pope Francis seems to be demonstrating exactly what he meant when he told cardinals that the church needs to be less “self-referential” and more present in every environment of modern society.

The debate over washing the feet at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper had become one of those “self-referential” issues. The controversy was whether both men and women could have their feet washed; some argued that Jesus was instituting the priesthood with his 12 male disciples on that occasion, and that the “men only” rule made ritual sense.

Pope Francis, as we know, washed and kissed the feet of 12 young inmates in a Rome prison at the Thursday liturgy. Among them were two young women and two Muslims. He explained that washing the feet was above all an act of humble service, and said it illustrated simply that “we need to help one another.”

“These young people will help me be more humble, to be a servant, as a bishop should be,” he said.

In other words, rather than drawing boundaries around this Catholic rite, he found a perfect way to make it accessible and understandable to all.

This is a smart way to evangelize. It’s not a smart way to woo traditionalists, as the reaction from some quarters has made clear – but that does not seem to be among the new pope’s priorities.

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