First of all, I do not mean to connect a sexual paraphilia with the Holy Week Mass of the Lord’s Supper except for the grave purpose of emphasizing the utter inappropriateness of the former having any presence on the latter.
Christmas morning 1998 in Scranton Pennsylvania, a priest who has recently admitted having a “foot fetish” gave a 13 year old girl alcohol and touched her feet and legs creepily. She now (16 years later) has made a police complaint, and the priest has been charged with molestation.
“I am both angry and demoralized to think that, yet again, a priest has been involved in such inappropriate, immoral and illegal behavior,” the Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, bishop of the Diocese of Scranton, said in the statement. “It is particularly distressing that the pastor of our Cathedral Parish, who is known to countless numbers of the faithful and has served in so many positions of trust and responsibility in the Diocese of Scranton, has betrayed that trust in such a manner.”
The victim, who was a member of the St. Patrick’s Parish [in Scranton, PA], told police that the Rev. Altavilla gave her alcohol in the rectory after the midnight service, then offered to drive her home at about 3 a.m. Once in the car, he pulled her legs on his lap and began touching her feet and moving his hands up her legs until the victim attempted to escape, according to the criminal complaint. The priest then apologized and drove the girl home.
Meanwhile, the annual ritual bashing of Bishop Morlino for simply holding local priests to the Church’s liturgical discipline according to which the optional Holy Thursday footwashing rite, which recalls an episode at the Last Supper with Jesus and the 12 Apostles, involves the priest washing the feet of adult males (viri).
Local religion journalist Doug Erickson felt the devilish urge to dress this up as if it were news: “Three years ago, Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino issued guidelines that gave priests the option of either using only men or not celebrating the ritual at all. Given the heightened attention to foot-washing last year, some parishioners thought Morlino might re-evaluate his position. This has not happened.”
Subsequently other “progressive” Catholic types bloodthirstily seized on the fake story, for instance Michael Scott Winters of the not-Catholic publication “National Catholic Reporter.” Winters acts as if Bishop Morlino’s directive in favor of the Church’s ordinary liturgical discipline is bizarre and bewildering, asking “Seriously, why would Morlino do this?” Pope Francis (who gave himself dispensation to wash the feet of a diverse array of prison inmates in Rome last year, which he had every right to do) wouldn’t like Bishop Morlino reminding priests of such a thing, Winters imagines: “rubricism, an overwrought concern to follow the rubrics in the liturgy, is a perfect example of the kind of self-referential Church obsessed with small minded rules that the Holy Father has spoken against.” Winters declares that the rite, which was re-introduced to the liturgy in 1955 and according to the Church is entirely optional, is actually essential and should never be omitted, therefore to him “The most disturbing part of Bishop Morlino’s decree was the suggestion that a parish could dispense with the rite entirely.” This seems to be his way of insisting that parishes should disobey Bishop Morlino instead of doing what womenfootwashing-insisting parishes tend to do in our diocese, which is to omit that rite.
If you are inclined to agree with Michael Scott Winters, please re-read the news about Father Altavilla in Scranton and ask yourself whether you consider it appropriate for him to wash the feet of females at Mass. The imagery of female footwashing is has substantially greater potential for conveying something sexually inappropriate–or (in our fallen world) actually being something sexually inappropriate. The spiritual washing from sin that Jesus offers is for everyone, however the apostles were men, this was Jesus’ choice and not arbitrary and it’s not arbitary that those feet to be washed are feet of adult men.
The story of Fr Altavilla of Scranton is perfectly timed to underscore why the wise do not undermine, scorn, mock, or subject to media harassment those bishops who, exercising the prudence which is theirs to exercise, do not give special permission to priests to run their hands over the bare feet and legs of girls and women during Holy Thursday Mass, nor at other times.
Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. The devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand him over.
So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered him, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
Jesus said to him, “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.” For he knew who would betray him; for this reason, he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
So when he had washed their feet [and] put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.