Pope Francis has reformed the ceremony of the washing of the feet during Mass on Holy Thursday by decreeing that henceforth it will be open to women, too or, as he put it, “to all the members of the People of God.”
The Vatican announced this reform on Jan. 21 when it published the decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, signed by the Prefect and Secretary of that office—Cardinal Robert Sarah and Archbishop Arthur Roche. The decree changes the rubric in the Roman Missal that governs this ceremony and which up to now had reserved the ceremony of the washing of the feet to men only. The relevant part of the decree reads as follows:
" In order that the full meaning of this rite might be expressed to those who participate it seemed good to the Supreme Pontiff Pope Francis to vary the norm which is found in the rubrics of the Roman Missal (Missale Romanu, p. 300 n. 11): «The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers…», which therefore must be changed as follows: «Those who are chosen from amongst the people of God are led by the ministers…» and consequently in the Ceremonial for Bishops (Caeremoniali Episcoporum n. 301 and n. 299b: «seats for those chosen»), so that pastors may select a small group of the faithful to represent the variety and the unity of each part of the people of God. Such small groups can be made up of men and women, and it is appropriate that they consist of people young and old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated men and women and laity."
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio used to wash the feet of both men and women in places such as hospitals, prisons and slums during the ceremony in the Holy Thursday Mass. After his election as pope on March 13, 2013, he continued on this same path and washed the feet of both women and men detainees when he visited a juvenile detention center in Rome on Holy Thursday 2013. His action was warmly welcomed by the vast majority of people—Catholic and non—but many traditionalist Catholics were perplexed or disturbed by it. Francis did the same in 2014 at a home for the elderly in Rome and in 2015 at Rebibbia, the city’s maximum security prison.
Today, we learned for the first time that Pope Francis had actually taken the decision to introduce this change way back in 2014 and had spoken to Cardinal Sarah about it soon after appointing him head of the Congregation for Divine Worship in November 2014. Not long after, he sent the cardinal a letter on 20 December 2014 communicating his decision.
The letter, which was released by the Vatican today, reveals that the pope told the cardinal:
As I was able to tell you by word of mouth, for some time now I have been reflecting on the Rite of ‘the washing of the feet’, contained in the Liturgy of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, with the intention of improving the way in which it is performed so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus' gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His charity without limits.After careful consideration, I have reached the decision to make a change in the rubrics of the Roman Missal. I therefore decree that the rubric, according to which those persons chosen for the Washing of the Feet should be men or boys, be modified, so that from now on the Pastors of the Church may choose the participants in the rite from among all the members of the People of God. I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen.
Surprisingly, it has taken the Congregation more than one year to communicate the pope’s decision to the universal church. No explanation has been given for this delay, but sources say that one of the reasons is that the Guinean Cardinal Sarah—who is widely regarded as a traditionalist on many questions—wanted to find out how this decision would play out in different cultural settings.
At the same time, the English Secretary of the Congregation, Archbishop Roche, conducted a study which looked at the history of the ceremony of washing the feet down the centuries. The congregation has now sent the results of this study to bishops’ conferences worldwide in the form of a commentary on the ceremony, under the title: “I have given you an example.” The commentary was written and signed by the archbishop, and published today by the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano.
Archbishop Roche began his commentary by saying that the Congregation “at the request of the Holy Father, has readjusted the rubric” in the Roman Missal regarding the washing of feet which “has been variously linked down the centuries with Holy Thursday” and which, since the reform of Holy Week (by Pius XII) in 1955, “could also take place during the evening Mass” on Holy Thursday.
He explained that the rite of washing of the feet, described in the Gospel of John, “carries a double significance: an imitation of what Christ did in the upper room washing the feet of the apostles, and an expression of the self-gift signified by this gesture of service.” It’s called the Mandatum (or Commandment) because “the commandment to fraternal love binds all the disciples of Jesus without any distinction or exception.”
In the seventh century, he said, the order for the liturgy speaks of the washing of the feet “by the bishop and by each cleric in their own homes.” He noted that subsequently the rite “was applied differently in the various dioceses and abbeys” and the 12th-century Roman Pontifical places it “after Vespers on Holy Thursday” while the 13th-century Roman Curia Pontifical speaks about it being done to “twelve sub-deacons.”
The Vatican archbishop recalled that the Roman Missal of Pius V (1570) states that after the stripping of the altar on Holy Thursday the clergy get together for the washing of the feet, and the older ones wash the feet of the younger ones. This takes place during the singing of antiphons, the last of which is Ubi Caritas and is concluded by the Pater Noster and a prayer that links the commandment of service with purification from sins. He noted that this rite is “reserved to the clergy” and since there is no instruction about ‘twelve,’ this would would seem to indicate that what counts isn’t just imitating what Jesus did in the upper room but rather putting his example into practice, something that “is expected of all his disciples.”
The English-born prelate noted that the Ceremonial for Bishops in 1600 is more detailed. It says that “after Vespers or at lunchtime, in a church, a chapter room or a suitable place” it was “the custom of the Bishop” to wash, dry and kiss “the feet of ‘thirteen’ poor people after having dressed them, fed them and given them a charitable donation.” The Ceremonial book adds that “this could be done to thirteen canons, according to the local custom and wishes of the Bishop, who might choose poor people even where it is the practice that they be canons.”
In the commentary, he underlined that “this meaningful gesture of the washing of feet” while “not applied to the entirety of the people of God and reserved to the clergy” at that time, “did not exclude local customs which take into account the poor or young people.” Also at that time, the Ceremonial for Bishops “expressly prescribed” the ceremony of washing of the feet “for cathedrals and collegiate churches.”
Archbishop Roche recalled that Pius XII “once more moved the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to the evening,” and laid down that “the washing of feet could take place, for pastoral reasons, during the Mass and after the homily, for ‘twelve chosen men’ placed ‘in the middle of the presbytery or on the hall of the church” and that “the celebrant washes and dries their feet (the kiss is no longer mentioned).”
In his commentary, he noted that “this now goes beyond the rather clerical and reserved sense, taking place in the public assembly with the direction for «twelve men» which makes it more explicitly an imitative sign, almost a sacred representation, that facilitates what Jesus did and had in mind on the first Holy Thursday.”
He recalled that the 1970 Roman Missal “retained the recently reformed rite,” but simplified some elements, such as omitting the number «twelve», and saying that the rite is to take place ‘in a suitable place.’ He noted that “the reservation solely to men (viri) remained for mimetic value.”
The Vatican archbishop said “the current change” introduced by Pope Francis “foresees that individuals may be chosen from amongst all the members of the people of God.” He explained that “the significance does not now relate so much to the exterior imitation of what Jesus has done” but “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, he said, the example that he has given to us “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 neighbor.” Indeed all the antiphons proposed in the Missal 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 interiorize it through the chant.”
Archbishop Roche said “the washing of feet is not obligatory in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper” on Holy Thursday. He continues:
It is for pastors to evaluate its desirability, according to the pastoral considerations and circumstances which exist, in such a way that it does not become something automatic or artificial, deprived of meaning and reduced to a staged event.” Furthermore, he said, this rite should not become so important as to grab all the attention during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in which “we are reminded of the distinctiveness of this Mass which commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, of the priestly Order and of the new commandment concerning fraternal charity, the supreme law for all and towards all in the Church.
The Secretary of the Congregation concluded his commentary by saying that “It is for pastors to choose a small group of persons who are representative of the entire people of God – lay, ordained ministers, married, single, religious, healthy, sick, children, young people and the elderly – and not just one category or condition. Those chosen should offer themselves willingly.”
And he emphasized that those who plan and organize the liturgical celebrations “should prepare and dispose everything so that all may be helped to fruitfully participate in this moment of remembering the ‘new commandment’ which is the life of every disciple of the Lord.”