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Michael W. Higgins is vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.


The Roman Catholic Church is about rules, doctrines, decrees and sanctions; it is also about rituals, gestures, symbols, dramatic re-enactments, prayer and spiritual freedom.

Keeping both dimensions in creative tension is no easy accomplishment, for invariably one will enjoy greater prominence and sway over the other. Take foot-washing, for example.

The kerfuffle created by Pope Francis shortly after his election in 2013 when he knelt and washed the feet of some inmates at a young offenders' prison in Rome was largely generated by the fact that they were the feet of Christians and non-Christians, males and females, and that their feet were being washed by the Bishop of Rome on Maundy or Holy Thursday, the beginning of the Triduum, the holiest days of the Catholic year.

For liturgical purists, this foot-washing incident opened an ecclesiastical can of worms. For these overseers of liturgical correctness, the Pope can wash as many feet as he likes, on as many occasions as he wishes and wherever he wants. But not on Holy Thursday. Only men can have their feet washed on this day because tradition tells us that Holy Thursday also marks the institution of the priesthood – and when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples they were incontrovertibly the feet of men.

Many Catholics were disturbed by the Pope's egalitarian behaviour because it not only departed from the norm, it also could be perceived as a subtle opening toward the inclusion of women in sacramental or ordained ministry.

Many more Catholics, however, wondered what the fuss was about. They applauded the Pope's expansive and generous action and observed it in subsequent years as well, as Francis was unbending in his insistence that foot-washing on Holy Thursday is a sign of inclusivity, humility, service and a visible manifestation of the spirit of love that must be at the heart of the Catholic communion.

Given that many parishes have included women in their Holy Thursday ceremonies since the 1970s in quiet defiance of the regulations, and given that the tradition of an exclusively male foot-washing rite is not of ancient origin but the result of Pope Pius XII's liturgical reforms in the 1950s, the newly decreed inclusivity is long overdue. The leadership provided by bishops in their own cathedrals this Holy Thursday will be crucial and telling.

Francis is now into the fourth year of his pontificate. His energetic pastorship on several fronts is public knowledge. His media ratings are the highest of any current international figure. His capacity for work and his fondness for straight talking have become legendary. And many of the reforms he was elected to enact are well into their gestational phase (it is Rome, after all).

But on the issue of women, Francis is falling behind. Although various women – professionals, specialists and religious leaders – have been invited to serve on Vatican commissions and in Vatican departments, and this is all to the good, substantive reforms and inspiring theological initiatives remain dormant or stillborn.

For example, in light of the dearth of ministers in much of the Catholic world, the incorporation of women into the diaconate is timely and critical. After all, much scholarly work has been done on this matter, and if nothing else a vigorous debate is called for.

Washing the feet of women is a first step; it is not the last. Francis understands the power of gesture and symbol. He knows that they are multilayered and multivalent. He is uncomfortable with the institutionally static and calcified.

Time for a new boldness.