A week or so ago I remember reading headlines about the newly ordained Pope Francis riling up traditionalists by washing the feet of some prisoners in Rome. Under the headline was a picture of Francis kneeling on the stone floor kissing the tattooed feet of these inmates.
I canʼt claim to know much about Catholic history but I do know that they have also felt the sting of the current shift towards secularism in the world as well as the backlash to a stream of controversies and improprieties over the years. The Catholic Church has been around long enough to go through the cycle of power and influence but now, as is the case with many churches, its membership is waning and its popularity and influence is decreasing. The many human flaws and controversies cannot be easily concealed but the new head of The Church seems to be showing signs that he recognizes the need for breaking with the old approach that has been seen by some people to be insincere. He seems to be humbled by the ensuing threat that his religious tradition might become irrelevant if it is not stoked again with renewed dedication.
Having grown up in Salt Lake Valley, UT I had little exposure to the Catholic Church. When I was 8 years old I stayed with some Catholic friends of my mother who invited me to go to Disneyland with them and I remember trying to mimic the sign of the cross when everyone in the room did it just before prayer. It probably looked similar to my first attempt at head, shoulders, knees and toes. I remember wanting to not be exposed as the ignorant outsider I was. My host, who knew my religion of course, seemed amused and told me I didnʼt need to worry about it but I still remember stressing every time they said a prayer.
Much of my thought on Catholicism growing up was influenced from Seminary and Institute classes where I would have lessons on the Great Apostacy. I remember that fascinated, yet judgmental feeling I had when they taught BoM scriptures that condemned the “Great and Abominable Church” for seeking riches and wearing costly apparel and persecuting the saints of God. I think my seminary teachers always tried to be respectful towards the intentions of Catholic members but when it came down to it the implication was always clear — there were two churches, and we were the good one.
To someone raised in a no frills protestant-influenced tradition, the pictures I saw of golden robes and hats and ornate architecture with burning incense seemed so foreign and exotic. This religion, I was told, once allowed people to consider themselves saved in exchange for donations. A condescending attitude remained with me to some extent even while I was on my mission in the densely Catholic-populated Philippines. I shook my head when I saw Philippinos willingly put nails in their hands, make bleeding cuts in their skin, and stand on crosses in imitation of the torture of Jesus. They seemed to be missing something fundamental.
Thankfully we all mature as we continue to grow and challenge our previous assumptions. The crisis of faith that came about even after a mission and temple marriage managed to kill any part of me that still wanted to claim superiority over other religions. I realized that people and institutions were much more complex than I had been willing to see. Many aspects of Catholicism interest me now and I have known good people associated with it. That phase of surrendering judgment has actually helped me to look at the world with much less defensiveness now. I still value the Book of Mormon but many of my interpretations have changed from the views I had in Seminary. The traits of the “Great and Abominable Church” can even be found within our own tradition and undeniable beauty and sincere devotion can be found within Catholicism. I think perhaps there really are two churches but the line separating them may not be so simple as an institutional distinction.
The image of Pope Francis kissing the feet of people who were not only prisoners, but some female and non-Christian really intrigued me. Christ said that His Apostles should wash each otherʼs feet but remember they were all men and were part of his elite group of followers. Pope Francisʼ decision to break protocol on this point seemed like a beautiful and powerful symbol and it drew me back into the New Testament scripture where Peter was shocked to see that the man he had previously identified as the Messiah was bent over tenderly performing a servantʼs role and wiping the dirt from his feet.
I can almost feel Peterʼs words, “My Lord?! What the heck are you doing?! You will never wash my feet!” (paraphrasing)
“Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” (John: 13:1-15)
This scripture means a lot to me and it hits at the core of Christʼs message of service. What stronger motivation can there be to humbly serve than seeing the most revered person you know refusing to acknowledge their obvious spiritual greatness while scrubbing away your own filth? Is there a measurement for the level of devotion and gratitude this can produce in a person?
This idea of leaders acting the role of servants is further emphasized within LDS scriptures as well:
45Verily, I say unto my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., or in other words, I will call you friends, for you are my friends, and ye shall have an inheritance with me.
46 I called you servants for the world’s sake, and ye are their servants for my sake—(D&C 93: 45-46)
How often do we think of the presiding authorities of The Church as our servants? How often do we think of our Bishops and Stake Presidents and ANY called teacher as a religious servant? Is this an expression of false modesty or is it sincere? When Christ said “Why callest thou me good?” did he really mean it? Because I think we can all agree that he was pretty damn GOOD. What about that talk about the least among us being great (Luke 9:48)?
I am constantly surprised to see that the BoM and D&C do not seem to propose a top-down hierarchy. There is order of course to the system but there is also great effort to avoid a system where any individual can be held up and adored like an idol. Despite the common misconception that we are supposed to “follow the prophet” maybe the primary song should say, “Follow Christ, and prayerfully consider the wisdom of his servants the prophets.” Maybe that version won’t flow as well though….
The BoM demonstrates an ideal where priests, the uppermost leaders of the church (or General Authorities if compared to our model), were not greater than the average person who would listen to them preach:
“And when the priests left their labor to impart the word of God unto the people, the people also left their labors to hear the word of God. And when the priest had imparted unto them the word of God they all returned again diligently unto their labors; and the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength.” (Alma 1:26)
I try to not assume negative things about people who appear to me to be good-hearted, dedicated servants. I do not think the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles would assert unrighteous authority over anyone based on my limited exposure to them but others might disagree. They are human after all and according to Joseph Smith one of our biggest failings as mortals is to misuse authority the moment we suppose we are in possession of it. I am constantly surprised to see members elevating their leaders to an almost infallible status, even when the leaders do not claim it themselves. Did the first Pope to wear a golden robe concede to dress like a king because he felt his title warranted it or was it given to him by a devoted laity who were convinced that he was so much holier than they were? Did they think he had access to God that they did not? It’s hard to believe how much the position originally held by a lower-class fisherman changed over time into something so prestigious and politically powerful. As a church gains power and influence, shouldn’t it be expected that this type of pressure to make leaders appear perfect will arise? Could our leaders be spiritually weakened by our adulation or over-reliance on them? If that comment paints me in a devilish light it should be remembered that this was actually a concern of Joseph Smith.
I donʼt know to what extent the leaders of our Church deflect praise in their personal lives but I must admit I have wondered how extravagant birthday parties have been justified that have filled the Conference Center with people on their behalf. Mormon celebrities have performed at these events and the life of the prophet has been reviewed and honored. I don’t know how General Authorities have felt comfortable stating that somewhere God himself has declared that a prophet cannot lead others astray or that the opinion of every religious servant who sits in a chief seat should be regarded equal to scripture. Many will think I am petty to bring up these examples for reevaluation. I admire the stories I have read about our prophets but my gut tells me there is still something inconsistent between the scriptural ideal and the personality worship we often see now.
The Mormon Church still practices a foot washing ceremony in the temple today. I just learned about it a few months ago. It has never been mentioned in any Gospel Doctrine class that I can recall despite the fact that it is considered to be an ordinance that is necessary for final exaltation. Those who receive it are said to have received their Calling and Election (If you accept that this comes through an outward ordinance). It was initiated by Joseph Smith in the first ceremonies given to the Quorum of the Anointed above his red brick store. Iʼm not totally convinced we still understand what Joseph had in mind with this ordinance. I get the idea that we donʼt really know what to do with it. Today, members or leaders who are considered eligible because of their visible service and dedication are selected to have this ordinance performed at the hands of an actual Apostle in the temple.
I have mixed feelings about this, and mostly it comes down to the message which I feel is successfully communicated through Pope Francisʼ recent public actions. In contrast, I don’t feel the message comes through the same way in our Church. The servant should serve the least among us — not the most highly regarded and publicly lauded. That is how Christ changes hearts from within without compulsory means because, like Peter, we don’t believe we should be worthy of such love from the greatest among us, yet His grace still flows into the lives of those who sincerely seek for it regardless of their phase of development or outward signs of conformity. It should be remembered that even Thomas S. Monson is an unprofitable servant to God although he may be profitable to us.
I do not know anyone who has received the Second Anointing. Perhaps only General Authorities will have their Calling and Election made sure, since it seems they are most likely to receive it. I do think there is something beautiful about seeing the leader of a major religion humble himself and desperately try to reclaim those that are lost by demonstrating greater humility. I applaud the effort and hope that the Catholic Church sees positive results from this. Only time will tell if it is just an outward display or if this less conventional Pope can really push back against the challenges that religion faces today.
Man, how I would love to see a similar gesture from our own leaders…