Issue: May women and children lawfully participate in the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual? Can this ritual be lawfully replaced with a hand-washing or hand-anointing, or any other ritual?
Response: The Church’s current guidelines clearly prescribe that only men may have their feet washed in the Holy Thursday, foot-washing ritual. While the ritual is optional, current liturgical norms do not allow for a substitution of a different ritual in place of the foot washing ritual.
Discussion: Jesus Christ chose His twelve Apostles (Mk. 3:13-19), and ordained them as priests and bishops (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 1577). At the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of His apostles (Jn. 13:1-20), and He instituted the priesthood (Council of Trent, Doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass, Chapter I). Because the washing of His Apostle’s feet was a significant event at the Last Supper, the Church has continued the ritual in her Holy Thursday celebrations. Because of its close connection with the institution of the all-male priesthood, the Church has continued the Master’s ritual as He performed it; namely, limiting the ritual to washing the feet of men.
When Jesus washed the feet of his twelve Apostles at the Last Supper, He said, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand” (Jn. 13:7). When He was finished, Jesus asked: “Do you know what I have done?… If I then, your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:12-14). He then reminded His apostles of their call to service: “A servant is no greater than his master… If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (Jn. 13:16-17).
The washing of feet during the Holy Thursday celebration of the Last Supper is a reminder primarily to the priest that he acts in the person of Christ and must serve God’s people in humility. The focus is on the priest, not the congregation. The priest acts in the role of Jesus, the twelve men act in the role of the Apostles. When the priest washes the feet of the twelve men, he sees himself through the eyes of Christ. He is challenged to remember that just as Jesus washed his feet, so must he wash the feet of others. Renewed by this ritual, the priest returns to his role as pastor of the congregation and “washes their feet” by offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He continues to wash their feet after the celebration of Mass by living his life in dedicated service to his congregation.
The role of the congregation during the ritual is simply to be present. Jesus came to serve us. Because we were in need of a savior, He came to us. We did not go to Him. The ritual reflects this. The congregation is simply present in its need for a priest to serve them. The priest comes to serve the laity in the person of Christ. Our presence, though passive during the ritual, is the purpose and affirmation of his ministry.
The Sacramentary, the book that provides the instructions for the liturgy, clearly states that the ritual is optional. As the instructions note: “Depending on pastoral circumstances, the washing of feet follows the homily… The general intercessions follow the washing of feet, or, if this does not take place, they follow the homily” (emphasis added). The instructions do not allow for a substitution of the rite, only the choice to have it or not.
The instructions specifically require men to represent the Apostles during the ritual:
The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers, he pours water over each one’s feet and dries them.
“The men who have been chosen” is a translation of the original Latin “viri selecti,” which can only be translated as “chosen men” (males). Because of ongoing debate on this issue, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued the circular letter, “Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts” (Paschales Solemnitatis) on January 16, 1988. The document notes, “The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, 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, emphasis added).
Unfortunately, in many parishes changes have been introduced to the washing of feet ritual. These changes violate liturgical norms and destroy the sign value of the ritual. These changes include washing the feet of women and children, having extraordinary ministers wash feet, having the entire congregation come forward to have their feet or hands washed, or having hands anointed. Proponents of these changes argue that those whose feet are washed should represent the many different people in the parish and the equality of all. In places where hands are washed, they argue that it is easier to do and everyone can participate. Such arguments wrongly de-emphasize the purpose of the prescribed ritual.
When women, children, or large numbers take part in the foot washing ritual, the focus shifts from the priest to the congregation. This is not the purpose of the ritual. The purpose of the ritual is to focus on the role of the priest. When hands are washed rather than feet, the connection with Scripture and the actions of Christ are lost (Jn. 13:3-11). As Jesus Himself said to Peter, who wanted his hands and head washed with his feet, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet…but not everyone of you (are clean)” (Jn. 13:10). These last statements of Jesus show that the emphasis of the ritual is not on the people, but on the actions of the priest. For the ritual does not symbolize that everyone is made clean, or that everyone participates, but rather that the priest is to serve.
At their June 1996 meeting, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) proposed a change to emphasize that all are called to serve one another in love. “Those whose feet are washed should be chosen to represent various people who constitute the parish or community: the young and old, men and women.” The proposal would allow women and children to be among those whose feet would be washed. It would not allow the washing of hands, or some other substituted ritual. While approved by more than two-thirds of the U.S. Bishops, this norm requires the confirmation of the Holy See in Rome before becoming law for the United States of America. The Vatican has yet to give formal approval to the inclusion of women and children in the washing of feet.
The washing of men’s feet during the Holy Thursday celebration of the Last Supper is a rich sign of the priest’s role in the community. Rooted in Sacred Scripture, this sign primarily reminds the priest that he comes to serve the congregation as Christ came to serve all. The presence of the congregation is a passive affirmation of his purpose and call to ministry. As Catholics, we are challenged to participate in this ritual with quiet expectation and prayer that our priests will rise from the liturgy renewed in their call to serve as Christ served.