Pope restores an older tradition: Easter feet-washing to include women

Pope-Francis-Holy-Thursday-foot-washing[Austen Ivereigh] Pope Francis has changed the rubrics of the Roman Missal to make clear that the traditional foot-washing ritual by priests at the start of Easter can include women and girls, not just men and boys.

The Church around the world has long assumed in practice that when priests at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper wash the feet of people taken from the congregation, that they can be male or female. In the United States, for example, the bishops’ conference made clear back in 1987 that the Latin phrase viri selecti in the Roman Missal meant either men or women. This has been the norm in practice in parishes across the western world — including in Buenos Aires, where the then Cardinal Bergoglio always used to perform the foot-washing ritual away from the cathedral, in prisons, hospitals and the like.

But Pope Francis was intensely criticized in some quarters at his first Easter celebration in 2013 when he washed the feet of inmates not at the Last Supper Mass in the papal basilica, but at a youth prison in Rome. Among those whose feet he washed and kissed were women — and in one case, a Muslim. In each of the past three years, Pope Francis has included at least one woman in his Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual, and sometimes non-Catholics.

The move infuriated traditionalists, who argued that the ritual should be confined to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, and that because the Mass instituted the priesthood the ritual should be confined to men.

Yet Francis has been restoring what once was tradition. The custom in the seventeenth century, for example, was for bishops to wash, dry and kiss the feet of 13 poor people after having dressed them and fed them. Nor is there any obligation for the foot-washing to be part of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

In recent decades, however, popes have usually washed the feet of 12 retired priests at the liturgy — although occasionally laymen have been chosen — at the Last Supper Mass in the basilica.

When Pope Francis performed the ritual outside the Mass and included women, critics argued that viri in the 1955 rubrics meant men, and that the Pope should either obey the rubrics or change them.

In a December 2014 letter to Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, Pope Francis ordered that “from now on the pastors of the Church should be able to choose the participants in the rite from all the members of the People of God.” This was because, he explained, Jesus’s act in the Upper Room on the night before his Crucifixion symbolised his “limitless love for all.”

In a decree dated 6 January and published today (PDF here) the Congregation for Divine Worship says that “pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God,” and that they “may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople.”

It is not clear why the Congregation took over a year to act on the Pope’s order.

The rite  — known as the Mandatum, because Jesus ordered his disciples to imitate him — has undergone many changes in the Church’s history. Changes made in 1970 further simplified the rite and omitted the requirement that the number participating be 12.

Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokesman, told journalists that the pope wished “this dimension of the gesture of Christ’s love for all” to be the focus rather than just a portrayal of the biblical scene during the Last Supper. In his commentary on the change (PDF here), Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, notes:

The current change foresees that individuals may be chosen from amongst all the members of the people of God. The significance does not now relate so much to the exterior imitation of what Jesus has done, rather as to the meaning of what he has accomplished which has a universal importance, namely the giving of himself «to the end» for the salvation of the human race, his charity which embraces all people and which makes all people brothers and sisters by following his example. In fact, the exemplum that he has given to us so that we might do as he has done goes beyond the physical washing of the feet of others to embrace everything that such a gesture expresses in service of the tangible love of our neighbour. All the antiphons proposed in the Missale during the washing of feet recall and illustrate the meaning of this gesture both for those who carry it out and for those who receive it as well as for those who look on and interiorise it through the chant.


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