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Chinese Catholics and the washing of the feet

According to the Roman Missal, there are no uniform requirements for this ritual
Chinese Catholics and the washing of the feet

This file image shows an altar server holding a holy text during a celebration of the Feast of the Ascension at an underground church in Tianjin, China, last May 24. Churches across China are considering the pope's decree on the washing of the feet ritual being be open to all of God's people. (Photo by AFP)

Published: March 29, 2016 10:15 AM GMT
Updated: March 29, 2016 10:23 AM GMT

Chinese Catholics entered the Easter Triduum on March 24 and experimented with a new liturgical norm regarding foot washing, which has brought on some debate within the church.

Pope Francis amended the ritual of the washing of the feet via decree in January, allowing all of God's people — that means anyone — to receive this highly symbolic gesture. Previously liturgical norms stipulated that only men could have their feet washed by the celebrant.

Commentators have been quick to emphasize that the pope's decree means that women could be included in the ritual, which enhances the universality of the gesture.

Others, however, said that this modification minimizes the responsibility of the ordained ministry in the church. Indeed, in the Gospel story, the washing of the feet was a gesture for the apostles only, symbolizing Christ's relationship to his church. By opening the ritual to women, the reference to the 12 disciples loses its obvious centrality behind the sign of service and universal inclusiveness.

Other commentators in China believed this liturgical change might hurt the cultural sensitivities of some Chinese Catholics. In some regions of the country, many thought it would be difficult to have priests wash women's feet.

But on Holy Thursday in a rural area of north Fujian, I witnessed a priest washing the feet of several women. Before the Mass in Nanping Catholic Church, a sister was tasked to find 12 volunteers for the ritual. Twelve were indeed found and four women were among them.

After the ceremony, the priest told us that women have been included in the ritual for several years without problem. On the ground, it seems the "Chinese cultural specificity" argument does not describe the whole of China. It is not even certain that it is the best argument to understand and explain the lack of enthusiasm that some Catholic communities have had toward the liturgical change.

To overcome this "culturist" argument, three sorts of distinctions should be taken into consideration.

The first distinction has to do with theology. In China, as elsewhere, there are many visions of the church, the function of the clergy, and the position of women. But because of many factors — lack of interest in debate, balance of power, etc. — these visions often become difficult to explain and rationalize. So what can occur is a "Chinese cultural difference" argument that becomes a convenient tool to resist change without having to clarify any theological reasoning.

A second distinction is the sociology. In China, as elsewhere, there are Catholic communities of various hues and histories. The differences can be between official and underground communities through the influences of internal migration, ethnicity, age, etc. Such is the case that these various Catholic groups can be tempted to distinguish themselves from others through using liturgical norms to strengthen their specific identity and differences.

The final distinction is about ritual itself. In a Christian context, the washing of the feet has a specific meaning. As an example, it has become like a sacrament for the True Jesus Church, a Pentecostal community founded a century ago.

Integration into this group requires baptism by full immersion in natural water, such as a river or spring, and the washing of feet for each new member. Therefore, washing the feet also becomes an ecclesial marker to underline the distinction between Christians. In this context, the fact that the pope says that the ritual can be applied to anyone ­— as opposed to just the faithful — may therefore appear troubling to some Chinese.

It is important to return to the text in the Roman Missal itself. The text permits choice from the entirety of God's people when choosing those whose feet will be washed.

There is no specific directive or formal injunction that enforces local communities to act against their sensibilities. As part of that, the Roman Missal imposes no quota policy, or parity. It only opens possibilities. Each church can therefore discern the appropriate way for them to conduct the washing of the feet.

To disappoint advocates of an ecclesiology of uniformity, this variety of practices from one place to another illustrates how the church in prayer is not a monolith but a reality of diversity and respect.

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