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Washing Feet

The Pope today celebrated the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper in a juvenile prison, where he washed the feet of 12 young people. Two of them were young women. Two were Muslims. The question of whether or not women's feet may be washed has been a contentious one in recent years. At issue is the question of what the foot washing on Holy Thursday represents: humble service (something to be practiced by all disciples), or the founding of the ministerial priesthood. The latter notion seems to be a deduction: 12 men were indicated in the rubrics of the 1955 text, which suggests a role-play of the Last Supper.

The 1988 Circular Letter from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, Paschale Solemnitatis, "On Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts," although keeping to the letter of the 1955 rubric men weighs in firmly on the side of service. It says that The washing of feet represents the service and charity of Christ, who came not to be served, but to serve. This tradition should be maintained and its proper significance explained. (no. 51). The rite generally has been interpreted as one of charity and humble service, rather than sacerdotal institution, by parish communities in the United States. As the Church has traveled from the 1950s to the present, the favored way to celebrate this rite has been with both men and women participating. The note on this subject on the USCCB website confirms that the inclusion of women had become customary in the U.S. by the mid-eighties, when the question arose about restricting the gesture to males only. The rubrics today in the Third Edition of the Roman Missal say that men (males) selected for this rite (viri selecti -- the number 12 has been dropped) are led forward. That's all.

How much importance is placed on that single word in the rubrics (viri) varies. The foot washing itself is not required by the rubrics. The optional quality of this practice was a result of disagreement about whether the action itself would be accessible in modern cultures. Sadly, some have dropped it in recent years precisely because they would prefer not to do it at all than to offend women by excluding them.

Although foot washing traditions in cathedrals, in monasteries, etc. have a long history, the rubric for washing feet in the Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper dates from the 1955 revision of the Holy Week rites, undertaken under Pius XII. Peter Jeffrey details the origins of this rite in his book, A New Commandment: Toward a Renewed Rite for the Washing of Feet (Collegeville: Order of St. Benedict, 1985). He concludes that the practice on Holy Thursday today ought to be taken as one of charity, and that it belongs to the greater living tradition of foot washing in the Church -- a tradition which includes women.

Pope Francis would seem to agree. Hearing the news confirmed that the Pope washed female feet has sent some commenters on traditionalist blogs into a tailspin.Those US bishops who have issued guidelines forbidding the washing of women's feet on Holy Thursday may wish to review their policy in light of Pope Francis's example. But for the most part, Pope Francis's actions will seem genuinely good and appropriate to most Catholics. Many comments over the past few days have shown positive interest and deep approval of the Pope's decision. What I found most touching of all, however, was this response from incarcerated young people in Los Angeles County, California. They wrote letters to him. Here is one:

Dear Pope Francis,
Thank you for washing the feet of youth like us in Italy. We also are young and made mistakes. Society has given up on us, thank you that you have not given up on us.

Maybe women should write letters to him too.

UPDATE: You can see video clips of the liturgy here. Watch for the Pope's smile as he looks up at the teen whose feet he has just washed.

About the Author

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press).



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So far Francis has followed the Gospel. If you have not seen his speech at the Conclave it is a must read. Here it is.The archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, on Saturday read from a document given him by Pope Francis, outlining the speech he gave during the pre-conclave General Congregation meetings of the Cardinals.Cardinal Ortega had been so impressed with the speech he asked the then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio for a copy of the intervention.Cardinal Ortega received permission from Pope Francis to share the information.Listen to our report: Here is an unofficial translation of the textEvangelizing implies Apostolic Zeal1. - Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.2. - When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick. (cf. The deformed woman of the Gospel). The evils that, over time, happen in ecclesial institutions have their root in self-referentiality and a kind of theological narcissism. In Revelation, Jesus says that he is at the door and knocks. Obviously, the text refers to his knocking from the outside in order to enter but I think about the times in which Jesus knocks from within so that we will let him come out. The self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out. 3. - When the Church is self-referential, inadvertently, she believes she has her own light; she ceases to be the mysterium lunae and gives way to that very serious evil, spiritual worldliness (which according to De Lubac, is the worst evil that can befall the Church). It lives to give glory only to one another. Put simply, there are two images of the Church: Church which evangelizes and comes out of herself, the Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidente proclamans; and the worldly Church, living within herself, of herself, for herself. This should shed light on the possible changes and reforms which must be done for the salvation of souls. 4. - Thinking of the next Pope: He must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.

I work with the RCIA in the diocese of Arlington VA. I have done so for almost the last decade. Over time, the Washing of Feet had become a beloved part of the Holy Thursday Mass in which members of the Catechumenate, sponsors/godparents, parishioners, other liturgical ministers were involved from time to time. It was kept dynamic in terms of its inclusion and placement in the Liturgy and emphasize service and love.In the last few years, partly due to our aging priestly staff, but also because of outside pressures from more conservative areas in the diocese, the stated controversies you noted became more prevalent. As the church more and more opined its lack of calls to the vocation of priesthood there seemed to be a simultaneous turn toward emphasizing the selection of men to participate in the washing of feet. Some creative interpretations were done some years, like having it totally outside of the Mass, in order to accommodate women without "violating" the would-be critics and snitches. But last year, we finally succumbed to omitting it all together.This year we have a new pastor, after the retirement of the last pastor who had an unprecedented tenure of some 25 years. The new pastor also opted to omit the foot washing this year--it being his first Easter Vigil as pastor in a parish. I am excited to revisit this issue in light of Pope Francis' example. I don't think any of the women in our parish are under the illusion that such an act of kindness and love is tantamount to opening the doors to women's ordination, but the parish as a whole would probably welcome the return of participating in the example Jesus gave us as Servant Leader and adding that to the refrain "Do this in memory of me."

Tailspin? Excellent.A number of students at my parish have expressed their discomfort over our community's open foot washing. (We don't bother with selecti.)I lack the patience for this, really.

We just got an email from the liturgy co-ordinator asking us to volunteer for foot washing tonight. We hesitated to present our 80 year old feet [toes] for washing but in honor of Francis we will let our Franciscan pastor have a go at our ugly feet. (-:Habemus papam ... right?

Only the most jaded clericalist would deem it important to place such limitations on the rite of foot washing. As Catholics we are all called to serve all, and to take this exemplary occasion of service -- both in its Gospel presentation and in our own parish celebrations -- and use it to exclude is simply neither Christian nor Catholic. As Pope Francis has now demonstrated. I would also add that excluding women from those selected under the cover of the Gospel precedent is to cover a misogynistic wolf in liturgical sheep's clothing, plain and simple. "Get over it and take the Gospel into your heart" is my advice for those who think otherwise. This liturgy is moving no matter how I see it done (including the time a fallen away Catholic prisoner in San Quentin, as his first attendance at mass in years due to emotional abuse by parish staff as a child, had his feet washed by the presider). But probably the most thought provoking of all was when the group of first communion and confirmation candidates washed either the hands or feet of the entire congregation, at the choice of those receiving the service. I can think of no better way to teach these young candidates the meaning of Catholic Christianity. Lest you think I am just a flakey liberal, I happen to be a candidate in the Ordo Francsicanus Saecularis and an MDiv candidate at a Catholic seminary. I do think about these things.

Thanks, Rita - even, balanced, and appreciate both the history and resource (P. Jeffrey).Can't believe some of the vitriol on the traddie blogs - best was a woman who was scandalized if a priest washed *pretty young women*'s feet - you know what happens next!!! (think it tells us more about her than anything else)FYI - we had some struggles in the seminary because rectors or provincials would often opt to celebrate priesthood at Holy Thursday while faculty/staff wanted to focus upon the mandatum and the call to service/ministry. So, you had expensive steak dinners following Holy Thursday with folks refusing to show up in protest. It was even more of a scandal when the religious order is the Vincentians (followers of Vincent dePaul - "we have the poor with us always" and enshrined the preferential option to the poor in its charter) but the CMs also had a primary apostolate to run seminaries and form priests (thus, that advocacy). Obviously,the key here is VII's definition and understanding that priesthood is a ministry of service - thus, the mandatum is at the core of any call to the priesthood. (not celebrating ordination with expensive dinners).

Rita - thanks for this outstanding post.I know I've said this a few times before, but I'm gonna keep on saying it: Pope Francis seems to have an intuitive genius for the diaconal aspect of ministry. He models Christ the Servant like no bishop I can think of.He may be ushering the church into a renewed age of diakonia. I think that is something to get excited about.

Tailspin? Why? Actions of Pope Francis in the two weeks since he was elected are not to some peoples liking: does not wear a mozzetta, did not distribute Communion at his inaugural Mass, is not living in the papal apartments, etc., etc., and so forth. But, he is our pope. Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

I think it is wonderful that he went to visit people in prison; our incarcerated brothers and sisters really are the world's throwaways. Cardinal Dolan of NY went to visit a prison yesterday, as well. Our new Pope is leading by example, the way it should be.

In several of the blogs protesting the washing the feet of women in this liturgy, a document is cited. It states that viri are those ones whose feet would be washed in this ceremony. They may have a point. If my four years of High School Latin serve me well, the liturgical directive would have used the word homines had women been included.

I, who pride myself on keeping up with Church goings -on , was not aware of this "no girls allowed in our feet-washing" ritual. I live in a diocese headed by the last of the Vatican ll bishops so perhaps that is why I have not heard of the mens only dictate. In our parish, at the washing of the feet ritual everyone in the congregation is invited up to the altar to have their feet washed and in turn wash the feet of others. In my previous parish, it was hard to find 12 people to volunteer, but in this one most people are pretty cool about it. And I have to tell you, it is inspiring. Our indefatigable sacristan positions the youth ministry kids with towels and all goes smoothly. And this is a parish with more than 3500 households and a crowded church on Holy Thursday. I would think traditional-bound Catholics would be over the moon about a ritual like this one .

I've always loved the Holy Thursday liturgy, and one reason I've always loved it was this ritual, and one reason I've always loved this ritual was that its meaning seemed so powerful and clear: our pastor demonstrating his commitment to servant-leadership, and modeling that call to service for all of us. So it's bewildering to me to hear it interpreted as pertaining solely to the institution of the priesthood (and therefore as a play-acting of the Last Supper, as you say, Rita). Isn't the Chrism Mass supposed to be the opportunity to focus on the priests' calling? And then, they go out from the cathedral to their own parishes and demonstrate their commitment to that calling in the evening's Mass? If, instead, the foot-washing rite is just another reference to the importance of the clerical state -- and if the "you" in "I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you" means only ordained men -- what are the rest of us doing there?

Good article Rita and interesting history. I always inuitively (and this was what also has been emphasized at Holy Thursday) understood this as service.As for traditionalist bloggers, I think they are missing the message! Go, love and serve your neighbour and your neighbour includes women, Muslims, all manner of people. They should spend some time in prayer, like we all should, and think about the implications of this ritual and liturgy for our lives.Good for Pope Francis yet again!!! Following the footsteps of our master

If we had eight sacraments , foot washing all would be it.

And so the pendulum swings. The uproar about the foot-washing sounds so much like the complaints from our brothers and sisters on the other side of the spectrum when Benedict XVI established the Ordinariate for disaffected Anglicans or made overtures to the SSPX. And like the complaints of our brothers and sisters on another side when John Paul II prayed with leaders from other religions at Assisi.But we're still brothers and sisters. If we can just get that through our thick heads, maybe the message of Easter will really make a difference in the world . . . and in the Church.

Francis just continues to inspire. This is truly outstanding. Bless him.

If we had eight sacraments , foot washing all would be it. John's version of the Last Supper has no institution narrative - no establishment of the Eucharist. Instead, it has the foot washing - which appears only in John, not any of the other three gospels. For John, it is that service to others that Jesus taught us to do in memory of Him. "14 If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one anothers feet.15 I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.--John 13In John, Jesus talks of eating his body and blood not at the Last Supper but in the Synagogue of Capernaum on the day after the miracle of the loaves and fishes:"51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world52 The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?53 Jesus said to them, Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.57 Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.--John 6

Holloway, we had a y'all come feet washing one year, when Christ Renews His Parish was ascendent, and the next year the walls were bowed out by the Holy Thursday crowd. Then came the order to cool it, and keep it to the boys. We remain SRO on Holy Thursday, but the y'all come year started it. This year our bishop watched the pope on TV, and lo, in mid-afternoon, women were recruited across the diocese to bring their feet as we went to DEFCOM7 at the last minute to emulate the bishop of Rome.Having both washed and been washed in seasons past (it is a key part of CHRP), I have to agree with Ed Gleason. It should be the eighth sacrament. This year, the church was hushed as if a sacrament were being performed while the pastor did the requisite 12 with the 2 late entries.

Tom Blackburn,Thanks for this comment, but DEFCOM7? Could you please translate?

Jimmy Akin has two articles on including women in he foot washing. Essentially, he says that, since 2005, each bishop can decide what is the best for his diocese, even if that weren't so, the Pope is free to do as he wants about including women in his own foot washing.

I was privileged to be able to wash feet this evening. I washed the feet of men, women, boys, girls, and one tiny little infant who may have been a boy. It was joyful and moving. What a beautiful, wonderful ceremony.

People in my parish have long washed one another's feet. This was the first year, alas, our daughter opted out of our usual family threesome. Teenagers!One student remarked to me that tonight's liturgy was "almost overwhelming." That is a good attitude to have heading into the rest of the Triduum.

Frankly, I'm washing my hands of this whole issue...

Rita, DEFCON is a military acronym for defense readiness condition. There are only five, I think, DEFCON levels, of which 1 is highest. That, I presume, would translate into "the pope is coming here!" At level 7, it would hardly be an emergency, but it would be above normal that women who didn't expect a foot washing when they got out of bed yesterday were getting one before they went back to bed last night.

Rita:Thank you for a wonderful post.As for those who were upset at the pope for breaking the rules I am reminded of the last line of a funny but salacious limerick: "De minimis non curat lex."

I hear you...the trouble we (I)may experience with the "washing" of feet or anything else for this matter is (in my opinion)that the "faithful" have a sense of sincerity we bring to the ritual ..of liturgy. What is behind the symbol is the reality of a community that really "love as Jesus did". Was the washing....a wash or a wishful sign depends of the works of mercy performed during the day to day that preceded such rite.

Since when has American Catholicism followed the example of Popes? It seems only when politically convenient, as in this case with the call for certain US Bishops to change their "policies" because of women-speak. I did not see much example in US of receiving Our Lord on the tongue while kneeling all these years, something forbidden by not a few US Bishops.Also Ms Ferrone should read what the Pope has said about the Mass of the Last Supper: it is primarily about the priesthood, and the priesthood is about service to God and His people.

It always seemed to me that the male only restriction on the rite made no sense, because if the rite was particular to priesthood, then only priests should have their feet washed, but if the rite was particular to discipleship (which is much more Johannine) then all disciples could have their feet washed, not just male ones. In any case, I think that Pope Francis has turned the entire debate in a new direction by choosing to wash the feet of non-Christians. For all of the debate about men vs. women, and "12" vs. "more than twelve", the point of the rite has always seemed to be an example/reminder for believers that they are to follow the example of Christ as one who serves. Washing the feet of non-Christians seems to shift this focus, although in a "Good Samaritan" sort of way, where the pope (in this case) provides the example for servants, but the recipients are no longer representatives of disciples, but rather the poor - anyone who is in need. This seems to eliminate the entire men vs. women question, because that only makes sense as an internal Church matter.

I know I'm not the only one who thought of Vincent's "I've given a million ladies a million foot massages, and they all meant something" speech in Pulp Fiction when this story broke. I guess Father Z or Ed Peters gets to be Marsellus.

Ted, indulge an old man by making yourself clear. Do you mean the bishop of Rome has succumbed to "women-speak"? Or that the bishops of the United States, when they emulate him, succumb to "women-speak"? And when you tell me who is doing it, can you also tell me what "woman-speak" is.I am sure Rita Ferone has read what the pope said about the Last Supper because even I have seen it. And she has written extensively on the liturgy, including a book you might read while we are issuing suggested readings around here.

The Roman Pontiff is not bound by merely ecclesiastical law (i.e. the prescripts of a foot washing rite), so he is completely free to ignore the foot washing rite's provision that unreasonably discriminates among the laity due to their sex. It's not even de minimis non curat lex. It's princeps legibus solutus est.

For those keeping stats on this issue, last night eleven of the twelve "viri selecti" in my local parish were women. Feminae selectae? (if I've got the grammar right, which is unlikely). And today our pastor was a reader in the annual Good Friday ecumenical service held in the local Episcopal church.

I, too, join the chorus in thanking Rita for this article, and Mr. Mazzolla in particular for the sharing HHFrancis' conclave speech. And like Todd, this "viri" silliness has me wearied. As an aside, at my normal liturgical music blog-haunt what's even more tiring is that folks are having kiniption (sp?) fits not about the footwashing at the CASA, nor the girls/Muslims, for crying out to heaven they're mad about the darn guitars at the Mass, with a coincidental screed calling for the ban of guitars and pianos from the Divine Liturgy, amen! Really? That is living proof of Francis' concerns about insularity becoming iconic.I hope that all of us, from our various encampments follow through with meaningful discernment of ALL that Francis is teaching and safeguarding that which we call Church.

"crying out to heaven theyre mad about the darn guitars at the Mass, with a coincidental screed calling for the ban of guitars and pianos from the Divine Liturgy, amen"I went to the Pax Christi Way of the Cross today in Manhattan, and one of the things I liked best was that there were some hymns from the 70s and 80s (Make Me A Channel of Your Peace, hymns like that) accompanied by a guitar and flute. I know that kind of music 's not for everybody, but it seems like there could be room for all our music, and the sky didn't fall when the Pope washed a couple of Muslims kids feet.

As is done in our diocese, did the pope announce that only catholic can receive communion?

At our beautiful Mass, we had the aforementioned "y'all come" dynamic, which I'd never seen before. It was most edifying and has been the talk of the parish. Lots of students (we're a university parish), but a notable presence of minority women. I was hugely touched by a mother's presenting her tiny child's feet for washing. I hope he remembers it all his life. A washing priest seemed today to be still basking in the experience.

Is it a method common to popes Benedict (especially towards the beginning of his pontificate) and Francis to start changes in liturgy, not by changing the rules, but by presiding over liturgy according to their personal preferences, in the hope that the model will catch on?That's how a cross and six candles appeared on the altar between the priest and the people.That's how some vestments that had been declared obsolete reappeared.And that's how now an indiscriminate set of people are getting their feet washed. There may be a similarity in method: prefer the persuasion of example to the imposition of regulation.

Interesting article but I'd enjoy reading an equally cogent analysis on the present Holy Father's use of communion by intinction. Intinction is something Francis has done more than once since he's become the Bishop of Rome.

Claire @ 9:44 That's an interesting thought, but I think the two cases are rather different. Pope Francis simply seems to be continuing to do what he did as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, with pastoral rather than liturgico-theological motives. Pope Benedict came to his office as a well-known critic of the liturgical reform and its results. I could be mistaken, but I believe the candle arrangement was arrived at while pope: his compromise solution to "correct" what he felt to be a deficiency introduced by celebrations facing the people. It was also some while into his pontificate that he began to require communion kneeling and on the tongue. Both may be said to lead by example, but the cases are different in other respects.

I also think it's a mistake to assume that what a pope does in his liturgies is what he thinks everyone should do. Papal Masses are their own kind of thing. I remember Benedict saying, in his more recent interview/book with Michael Seewald, that he'd decided kneeling/on the tongue should be the posture for those to whom he gave Communion because he wanted to counteract the circus-like atmosphere that surrounds papal Masses -- it was a situation he thought could use a nudge toward greater reverence. But he also said he did not intend thereby to suggest that it was the correct posture for everyone everywhere. (You can read that in his words here.) My guess was that Francis had a similar motivation for not distributing Communion in the usual way at his own installation Mass. In the case of Francis's foot-washing, I would not presume that the pope wants every bishop to celebrate the Triduum outside of his own cathedral or look for non-Christians to include in the foot-washing rite. But he does seem to be saying pretty clearly that there's no reason for participation in the rite to be restricted to men.

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