Just a few weeks after his election last spring, Pope Francis stunned papal observers by washing the feet of two women during a Holy Week ritual.

The rite — on Maundy Thursday, just prior to Easter Sunday — re-enacts Jesus’ washing of the feet of his 12 male disciples at his Last Supper. Traditionally, popes washed the feet only of men.

Catholic traditionalists believe the men-only rule should remain — at least for everyone below the pope — and many canon lawyers say church law agrees with that position. However, some dioceses in this country had begun including women long before the pope’s example, and a statement on the website for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says that to include women is “an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord.”

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.

That has not happened. Brent King, the diocesan spokesman, said priests have the same two options this year — men-only or no ritual. Holy Thursday Mass falls on April 17. Easter is April 20.

As has become his tradition, Morlino will celebrate Holy Thursday Mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Downtown Madison, King said, where he will wash the feet of 12 seminarians.

Last year, at least two priests — at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Madison and Nativity of Mary in Janesville — took a pass on the ritual due to the male-only rule.

The flood abates

Members of First Presbyterian Church in Oregon are back worshipping in their church following water damage that displaced them for nearly three months.

As I earlier reported, frozen water pipes burst at the church on Dec. 10, flooding about half the church with standing water. During the reconstruction, congregants hit the road, holding services at a nearby Methodist church, the Oregon Senior Center, even the State Bank of Cross Plains.

Members returned to their own church building March 5 for an Ash Wednesday service. On March 16, the congregation held its postponed Christmas cantata.

Dave Hanson, a member of the church’s governing body, reports that insurance covered everything beyond a $2,500 deductible, and the regional governing body of the denomination stepped in to cover that.

“So overall, we are very fortunate and happy to be using our building again,” he said.

Strange bedfellows

The death of the Rev. Richard Pritchard March 18 at age 100 brought a surprising anecdote from Dan Barker, co-president of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The two were opposites and adversaries — Pritchard a believer and conservative firebrand; Barker an atheist and a progressive on social issues. They once publicly debated the existence of God.

Yet Pritchard was a dues-paying member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation for a short time many years ago, Barker said. To be clear, Pritchard did not agree with the foundation’s philosophy and did not actively participate in group events, Barker said. But Pritchard, a strong moralist, wanted to receive the foundation’s newsletter because it tracked the crimes and abuses of clergy across the country, Barker said.

“I think he was just as hard on his fellow believers as he was on non-believers,” Barker said. “We were doing the kind of work he thought the church should be doing itself to police its clergy.”

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You can reach reporter Doug Erickson at derickson@madison.com or 608-252-6149.

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