How liturgy changes: understanding what the pope's foot-washing decree really means

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis, washes the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users during Holy Thursday Mass at a church in a poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2008. Following a request by Pope Francis, the Vatican issued a decree Jan. 21 specifying that the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual can include women. (CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters)

Just last week, Pope Francis decreed that the Holy Thursday foot washing ritual can include women. While his declaration is exciting and consistent with his papacy, my initial response was, “Really? We need a decree?”

I have clear childhood memories of my mother announcing the need to wear nylons on Holy Thursday so Father could not grab her for the foot washing. That was over 35 years ago.  Similar sentiments were expressed as I began work with our parish liturgy committee a decade ago. I even heard female choir members tell each other the same thing in recent years.

The question of people’s discomfort with personally participating in the foot washing ritual is a question for another day.  What these memories highlight is a clear acceptance of liturgical practice that included women. None of these women wondered about, but instead assumed the inclusion of women.  Pope Francis’s declaration simply validates and universalizes liturgical adaptation and praxis that has already been embraced in many places for many years.

Liturgical changes and adaptations are not new.  They happen for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes they are dictated by central authority, such as the standardization of the use of Latin and formulaic prayers during the 5th and 6th centuries, or our recent experience with the re-translation of the Roman Missal.  Sometimes culture drives adaptation, as evidenced in the role of dance in liturgical procession.  A desire to communicate meaning can also be a reason for change.  Recently, some couples getting married have started to include the ritual of the unity candle.  While the ritual is not part of the Rite, the symbol embodies meaning for couples who have just exchanged lifelong vows of commitment. In some places, this adaptation has been accepted as a positive development; in other places it has been discouraged, as an intrusion not fully at home in the liturgy. Overall, it illustrates the question of truly appropriate and meaningful adaptation and the importance of communal discernment. Other times, liturgical change is brought about by practical necessity.  A document such as Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest would have been unthinkable 75 years ago. In most parishes today, the lay Extraordinary Ministers of Communion significantly outnumber the ordained on any given Sunday.  Other adaptations happen to meet a clear and unique need.  Changes were made to allow parishes to offer gluten-free hosts to those who are gluten intolerant, and Children’s Liturgy of the Word, where younger members of the Parish are taken to a separate location and hear the gospel in child-friendly language, is common.

And sometimes, liturgical adaptations happen organically out of a deeper understanding of faith and the call to discipleship and service.

Vatican II did much to enrich our understanding of Church and discipleship.  As we continue to reflect on what it means to be the People of God, it should be of little surprise that our liturgical praxis reflects and embodies this more-inclusive (all-inclusive) notion of discipleship.  Liturgy is the work of the people and requires the “full, conscious and active participation” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” n. 14) of all the disciples. For many parishes, the call to participation necessitated changes to many liturgical practices, ensuring that all were familiar with the spoken responses, able to hear and see the presider and sing the music. Women came into the sanctuary as lectors and girls as altar servers. Lay men and women alike stepped into roles of sacristans and Extraordinary Minister of Communion.  Our physical sanctuaries changed as the communion rails came down.  The Church began to embrace the reality, however flawed and imperfectly, that we are the People of God—all of us—and liturgical praxis reflected the shift in our communal understanding of self and God.

The celebrations of the highest holy days of the liturgical year, the Triduum, are not exempt from this shift. In the Gospel that is proclaimed on Holy Thursday, Jesus tells his disciples “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15).    As parishes reflected on the call to discipleship and the need to empower full, conscious and active participation, it is no surprise that a powerful ritual has been adapted to be more inclusive and to embody the call to discipleship and service that is issued to all in the Gospel. Pope Francis has simply approved a reality that has already been discerned and embraced, both in the Second Vatican Council and in the local life of the church.

Laurie Ziliak is Director of Liturgy and Music for St. Mary’s Parish and a Content Passioneer for Saint Mary’s Press in Winona, MN.

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William Rydberg
5 years ago
Does anybody know the history of the foot washing, is it actually a "ritual" as officially defined by the Church? Does participation in convey Grace like a "sacramental"? If so, what kind: sanctifying grace, sufficient grace, etc..? One wonders 1) when it was introduced with lay participation; 2) was there a time when only those deemed Clergy only participated; 3) was there a time when only Sacradotal presbyters participated? As it seemed connected to the Institution of Sacradotal Priesthood, at least in the account proclaimed during the Holy Thursday Liturgy. We already know that in Convents for example (I.e. The ones for women) it was a practice to have the priest wash the feet of a small number of residents. Does any body know when the feet started being kissed, or is this an innovation, does any body know why? Does anybody know if it is connected in any way to Baptism.? If one is not a Christian, and they get their feet washed, is there any supernatural Grace conveyed? If so, should he/she be advised? Point, is while it's nice to advocate full participation, questions remain.... This may be seen as "small potatoes" by many, but seeking rigorous answers to this matter would throw a "torch" on issues like "Supercessionism " (very big "Potatoes". Scholarly journals like America, in my opinions continue to cite terms like "praxis" without even defining what the word means. I for example think the word is used incorrectly in this essay.. Will this decision eventually be submitted to local Synods for approval/amendment? But, it's just my opinion... We all know that it's ultimately up to the Kingfishers and the Holy Spirit... :) in Christ, The Memorial of the Conversion of St Paul, Apostle
William deHaas
5 years ago
At least you are asking questions rather than just knee jerking: By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus made visible the logic of love and of service that guided his life toward his death on the cross. But this gesture of Jesus is also the foundation of an ecclesial practice. The Christian community is invited to follow the way of service: “…so you ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). The Roman liturgy has included the foot-washing in the context of Holy Thursday rather recently, only in the second millennium, as we see in the twelfth century Pontificale Romano, in which the rite take place after Vespers. The thirteenth century liturgy of the Roman Curia includes this rite in an abbreviated form, which then passes into the Messale Romano of Pius V, in its 1570 edition, where it is celebrated outside of Mass during the afternoon. It is worth noting that the rubric of this Missal does not seem to preoccupy itself with the mimetic dimension of Jesus’s action. In fact, the rubric does not speak of washing the feet of “twelve” people; it says simply: “Post denudationem altarium, hora competenti, facto signo cum tabula, conveniunt clerici ad faciendum mandatum. Maior abluit pedes minoribus: tergit et osculatur…” [“After the altar is stripped, and at the proper hour, the signal having been given with the tabula, the clergy present carry out the mandatum. The seniorwashes the feet of his lessers: he wipes and kisses them…”] Note that this gesture is carried out only among the members of the clergy. Here we see that that liturgy is in general more anamnetic than mimetic: it makes memorial of the Lord’s actions, interpreting them in a broad ritual context. With the reform of Holy Week carried out by Pius XII in 1955, the foot-washing takes place after the homily of the Mass in cena Domini [the Mass of the Lord’s Supper]. The same is the case in the Messale Romano of 1962. Here the foot-washing is done to “duodecim viros selectos” [“twelve chosen men”]. Now it is no longer a solely clerical gesture and the reference to “twelve men” make it a more explicitly mimetic rite. This, however, is corrected by the Messale Romano of Paul VI, which no longer makes reference to the number twelve, but speaks only of “viri selecti” [“chosen men”].
William Rydberg
5 years ago
Mr deHaas: This is good information thank you. You seem to know quite a bit about Christianity for one of the People of the Book. God bless...
William Rydberg
4 years 12 months ago
Here is an interesting summary of the history from Catholic World News sourced out of the Vatican on Foot Washing: January 22, 2016 Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments commented on the Congregation’s new decree concerning the rite of the washing of the feet, which was issued at Pope Francis’s request. Archbishop Arthur Roche traced the history of the foot-washing rite from the seventh century, when a liturgical ordo called upon a bishop to wash the feet of the clerics who lived in his home. In the 12th century, the Roman Pontifical assigned the rite of foot washing to after Vespers on Holy Thursday, with the feet of 12 subdeacons being washed from the thirteenth century in Rome. The Roman Missal of 1570, Archbishop Roche continued, mentioned that clerics’ feet should be washed but did not specify the number 12; it directed that the hymn Ubi Caritas be chanted during the rite, which concluded with the Lord’s Prayer. The Ceremonial of Bishops of 1600 stated that after Vespers or at lunch, the bishop was to wash and kiss the feet of 13 poor persons after feeding them. Later, only clerics’ feet were washed, apart from local customs in which the feet of the poor-- or in Paris, of children-- were washed. With Pope Pius XII’s reform of 1955, the Holy Thursday Mass was celebrated during the evening, and for pastoral reasons, it was permitted for a priest publicly to wash and dry the feet of 12 men (kissing their feet was not mentioned). This was “an imitative sign, like a sacred representation” of Jesus’ actions at Holy Thursday, Archbishop Roche commented. The Roman Missal of 1970 further changed the rite: the number 12 was omitted, the Ubi Caritas was moved to the procession of the gifts, and the Lord’s Prayer no longer concluded the rite, as its use originated in the days when the rite was celebrated outside Mass. The rubric that viri (men) were to be selected, said Archbishop Roche, had “mimetic (imitative) value.” The “current change” to the foot-washing rite, which allows for the washing of the feet of selected members from the entire People of God, has changed the significance of the rite, Archbishop Roche continued. “The value now relates not so much to the exterior imitation of what Jesus has done,” and more to as his “gift of self ‘to the end’ for the salvation of mankind, his charity which embraces all” and offers an example. “The washing of feet is not mandatory,” he added, and pastors should “evaluate its suitability” in their circumstances. The rite should not be “automatic or artificial, deprived of meaning,” nor should it become “so important that all the attention of the Mass” is focused on it. Recalling the text of the decree, Archbishop Roche said that a small group that is representative of the People of God should be chosen: the ordained and the lay faithful, the single and the married, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick. References: Vi ho dato l’esempio (L’Osservatore Romano, p. 7) Pope changes liturgical norms to allow washing of women's feet on Holy Thursday (CWN, 1/21)
Lisa Weber
5 years ago
I am glad that Pope Francis made this change official even if it has been common practice for years. Making it official closes down a lot of argument from those who want no change at all.
ann pulliam
5 years ago
It has not been common practice everywhere. In Arlington Diocese it has been limited to men only. Some pastors would skip the practice all together as their silent protest. Most others did not seem to mind omitting women....but then again they also still do not allow girls to be altar server either. (it is up to the pastor to decide.)

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