The drama of Our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection comes alive to us through the magnificent Holy Week liturgies. One unique element, not done at any other time of the year, is the washing of feet on Holy Thursday.
The foot-washing rite calls to mind the episode during the Last Supper in which Our Lord, knowing full well what was going to happen in the ensuing days, laid aside His garments, girded Himself with a towel, and washed His apostles’ feet. He taught them by example how they were to exercise leadership in His Church–through humble service.
In the same way, the Holy Thursday rite provides that after the homily the priest, in imitation of Christ, washes the feet of men chosen from the congregation. When done orderly and reverently, this can be a particularly moving ritual, inspiring us to enter more deeply into the sacred liturgy.
Unfortunately, in too many Holy Thursday celebrations, foot washing has become a countersign, pointing to rivalry and power, not unity and service. This happens whenever the attention is taken away from the significance of Christ’s actions and instead is focused on who is–and isn’t–getting their feet washed.
It must be candidly admitted that Church authorities have opened the door to controversy through the mixed signals that have been given to the faithful and pastors alike in recent years.
The rite itself has always specified that men are to have their feet washed. The word used is viri, which refers specifically to adult males, not homines, which might have been understood, like the expression “human beings,” to include both women and men. Because of ongoing debate on this issue, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS), in a 1988 circular letter entitled Paschales Solemnitatis, affirmed that the tradition of washing the feet of “chosen men” should be maintained.
Then in 1996, the United States bishops proposed a modification that would allow for the washing of women’s and children’s feet during the Holy Thursday service. This proposal received the necessary support of more than two-thirds of the U.S. bishops, but it still required the formal approval of the Holy See before it could take effect. Such approval has never been given. Meanwhile, the CDWDS published the latest edition of the Roman Missal in 2002, which still only provides for men to have their feet washed.
Not surprisingly, it’s impossible to please everyone given this ambiguity. In parishes where only men have their feet washed, some complain about the lack of inclusivity and the failure to implement a “directive” of the U.S. bishops. In parishes where women and children have their feet washed, some complain about the illicit practice, which seems to accommodate dissenting elements in the Church.
There are two distinct theologies at work that facilitate this tension. The more traditional theology focuses on the vocation of the priest to serve God’s people in humility. The priest acts in the role of Jesus, while the twelve men serve in the role of the apostles. The priest’s ministry is ordered to serving the laity, and this rite reminds him of his call to serve the flock entrusted to him.
The other theology is based on the truth that all the faithful participate in the threefold mission of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. This kingship is exercised through our conquering the kingdom of sin and also through our loving acts of service and mercy. In imitation of Christ, we are all called to “wash others’ feet.”
This latter theology carries the day in most U.S. dioceses, where all the faithful–men and women–are allowed to participate in the foot-washing rite. But there’s more to it than that.
There has been in the Church in recent decades a relentless push toward opening roles and functions to the broadest number of people. In some contexts, this approach has fostered a greater participation in the life of the Church based on our baptismal dignity. At times, however, it has also given momentum to dissident agendas as represented by groups like Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful.
Now, having one’s feet washed in the strictest sense does not require “maleness.” This function more closely resembles service as a reader or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. It is not an instance like preaching a homily or, even more, consecrating the Eucharist, where the necessity of Holy Orders results in the function being closed to women.
To all this, I’d gently offer a two-pronged response. First, I’d respectfully urge that all Catholic dioceses and parishes follow the rubrics as they presently exist, and thereby not permit the washing of women’s feet on Holy Thursday. The point of the Vatican instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum was precisely to foster a joyful adherence to liturgical norms. Even if the washing of women’s feet might be permitted someday, we do well not to impose our own preferences or agendas on the liturgy in the meantime.
In 2005, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Sean O’Malley made a “pastoral decision” to allow for the washing of women’s feet in Boston. This much-publicized development did not, as some have implied, signal a change in the Church’s law. The general norm that only men’s feet be washed is still in effect and should be observed.
Second, while it’s theoretically possible for the Church to allow women to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday, it’s far from clear that it’s fitting to do so. Let me explain.
The rite provides a visual representation, or “icon,” of what happened at the Last Supper as recorded in the Gospel of John. One can imagine the reaction to altering a painting of the Last Supper to make a statement about social or gender equality. Even if the statement were just, the alteration of the icon is not. The liturgy simply is not the place for this type of tinkering, even for the best of motives. The Da Vinci Code phenomenon shows how easily false representations of our Catholic heritage, even when couched as fiction, can mislead and confuse the faithful.
Holy Thursday in a singularly preeminent way celebrates the institution of the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist, which are inseparably related. It’s neither a historical accident nor sex discrimination that the apostles happened to be men. It’s also no coincidence that the apostles’ successors have only chosen men to lay down their lives for the Church, the Bride of Christ, as ordained ministers.
Given all the special considerations before us at this time in our history–the decline in Eucharistic belief, the shortage of priests in many places, the need for a renewed understanding and appreciation of the priesthood in light of recent scandals, and a generalized confusion when it comes to gender roles–it doesn’t seem like a good idea to obscure the rite’s specific, historical context.
Further, the “sign value” of choosing a representative cross-section of the parish community–including women and children–could easily be misinterpreted as indicating that the Church is now more democratic than apostolic.
Foot washing is about rites, not rights. The rite is not about whose feet get to be washed, but about the priest’s call to exercise authority in imitation of his divine Master, who came not to be served, but to serve.
This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register, and is reprinted here given the proximity of Holy Week. For answers to your questions regarding Holy Week celebrations, visit www.cuf.org.