Pope Francis and a holy, humble break from tradition

Jena McGregor
Columnist March 29, 2013

Over the past two weeks, with one act of humility after another, Pope Francis has proven he’s willing to break with tradition.

Just after being named the new pontiff, he asked the faithful to pray for him, rather than the other way around. He’s refused to stand on the customary platform above other archbishops and dressed himself in simpler vestments than his predecessors. He’s made a practice of shunning the rich trappings of the position, from paying his own hotel bill to opting out of the palatial apartment popes have lived in for a century in favor of simpler digs.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

Many of these acts send a signal about who Jorge Mario Bergoglio is and what reforms he thinks the Catholic Church’s leadership needs to make. He’s making a point of continuing the humble lifestyle he lived in Argentina (where he was known to take the subway and fly coach) and showing how the Church’s bureaucracy has become too wrapped in clerical privilege.

But an act of Pope Francis’s on Thursday perhaps says the most about his humility. Taking part in a tradition of Christianity’s holy week that reenacts the humble gesture Jesus made toward his 12 disciples before the Last Supper, Francis washed the feet of 12 people. What was unusual, however, was that he did not wash the feet of priests or even lay men, as have his predecessors, and he did not do it within the hallowed walls of a Roman basilica. Rather, he washed the feet of 12 juvenile prisoners at the Casal del Marmo Penitentiary Institute for Minors. Two of the young people were women and one was a Muslim, marking the first time a pope had included either group in the ceremony.

The move to kiss the feet of women has some religious experts expecting controversy, saying the pope’s action could “set a questionable example.” Meanwhile, those who hope it’s a sign that he will consider ordaining women as priests may be disappointed. The Associated Press reports that in his 2011 book, he voiced support for the theological underpinnings of excluding women from the priesthood.

Still, the pope’s latest convention-busting move at the very least shows an interest in greater inclusivity. It reveals Francis to be a leader who is not merely humble, but courageously willing to reach beyond the Church in new ways. Thursday’s breach of established ritual may have been his most significant break from tradition so far. My guess is it won’t be his last.

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