Delia Gallagher, CNN - April 17, 2014
"Those chosen for the special honor included a 16-year-old boy from Cape Verde who was paralyzed in a diving accident last year, a 19-year-old man and a 39-year-old woman diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and two 86-year-olds with mobility problems.”
I know that the sensible, non-obsessive thing to do in situations like this is to compartmentalize and appreciate. Compartmentalize that it’s nice for the Pope to make such a gesture to a group of lowly and disadvantaged people, and set aside the question of why people with these disabilities are housed in a “home for the elderly and disabled”, and not living at home, with their families, or on their own if they choose? And then just appreciate the act of compassion … or is it respect?
Then there is the theological meaning, which is probably more important, but which I am not qualified to say much about. From what I have read, this Pope has often used the foot-washing ritual to buck high-church tradition and show love and respect for socially stigmatized people … like pregnant women in maternity homes, youth in drug rehabilitation, and AIDS patients. In which case choosing to focus on disabled people is significant, possibly a unique way of highlighting and de-stigmatizing them.
This would be a significant if subtle break from another Church tradition of a compassion towards disabled people that tended to further stigmatize and condescend. Think Mother Teresa, whose order wouldn’t install elevators required by local codes in their orphanages because they considered them, a luxury. They would carry disabled patients up and down flights of stairs. For them, the symbolic sacrifice of the giver was the whole point, and the recipients of their acts were little more than bit players in their interpretation of compassion. It’s the classic misunderstanding of compassion as something primarily for the giver, in which the receiver is nothing but an inert vessel.
That’s what I worried was going on with Pope Francis’ foot-washing. It still looks a little bit like that to me, though ultimately I don’t sense that Pope Francis thinks this way. I appreciate the idea of the highest Catholic Priest serving rather than being served.
Wouldn’t it be interesting, though, if one of those disabled people had reciprocated, and washed the Pope’s feet? Or, washed one another’s feet? Not to reinforce the perception that disabled people are humble or subservient, but to underscore that we can be givers as well as receivers.