Many cultures have rituals to indicate respect, through body movement such as bowing or through using gestures, as in shaking hands. Less common are those involving feet, although of course in many cultures etiquette (and sanitation) call for removal of shoes when entering a house. A ritual that has been in the news this Easter weekend is foot washing (“Maundy”), a Christian tradition conveying respect and humility. Many denominations engage in foot washing on Maundy Thursday as part of Holy Week, recalling Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It’s clearly an action that creates a dramatic social leveling between the participants. In fact, the word Maundy apparently derives from Latin mendicare, to beg. Apparently, the practice goes back to ancient traditions of hospitality, when guests were given water to wash their feet.
Foot washing is traditionally practiced in the Catholic Church, including the Pope washing feet on Maundy Thursday. The feet the Pope washes are exclusively attached to males, as the disciples were all men. Hence surprise this week when new Pope Francis washed the feet of two women. They were inmates of a youth prison in Rome and one of the girls was a Muslim. The action was received positively by many, as a further signal that this Pope is charting a quite different course from his predecessor, with less importance attached to pomp and ceremony and more to inclusivity and outreach. However, traditionalists are dismayed, as they have been by other actions by Francis that go against Catholic tradition. There is even the fear that including women in foot washing could be a small step towards the ordination of women as priests. It will be interesting to see if the Pope opens up significantly to other religions in meaningful ways. Comment from Scott Simon (NPR): “Sometimes great change can be revealed in small gestures.”