A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Washing of Women's Feet on Holy Thursday?


ROME, 23 MARCH 2004 (ZENIT).

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Question 1: Is it proper to have holy water receptacles empty from Ash Wednesday on, through all of Lent? F.D., Scandia, Minnesota

Q-2: I have learned today about the Washing of the Feet ceremony at Mass in my parish on Holy Thursday. To take the place of the Twelve Apostles, we are to have six gentlemen and six ladies. I would welcome your comments about this innovation. M.R., Melbourne, Australia

Q-3: Each year I find it increasingly difficult to perform the washing of parishioners' feet at the celebration of the Lord's Supper because of stiffness in my knee joints which make it almost impossible to get back up on my feet when moving from one parishioner to the next. Is it permissible to delegate this function to an older server? C.D., Archdiocese of New York

Q-4: For the adoration of the cross on Good Friday, can we use a crucifix (with Jesus' body on it) or should we look for a plain cross? F.M., Antique, Philippines

Answer 1: The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments recently responded to a similar question (3/14/03: Prot. N. 569/00/L) giving a clear answer: "This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in particular, for two reasons:

"1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being 'praeter legem' is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.

"2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the sacraments is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The 'fast' and 'abstinence' which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church.

"The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday)."

A-2: The rubrics for Holy Thursday clearly state that the priest washes the feet of men ("viri") in order to recall Christ's action toward his apostles. Any modification of this rite would require permission from the Holy See.

It is certainly true that in Christ there is neither male nor female and that all disciples are equal before the Lord. But this reality need not be expressed in every rite, especially one that is so tied up to the concrete historical circumstances of the Last Supper.

A-3: The rite of the washing of feet is not obligatory and may be legitimately omitted. However, this is usually not pastorally advisable.

While the rite may not be delegated to a non-priest, a concelebrant may substitute the main celebrant for a good reason.

The rubrics describing this rite are limited to the essentials (selected men sit in a suitable place) and so allow for practical adaptations to the realities of place, time and circumstances.

Thus, taking the example of our Holy Father, as he has grown older, and less able to bend over, the seats of those whose feet he washed were first elevated so that he could continue to perform the rite. But in the last year or so he has been substituted by a cardinal.

Thus, if possible, the seats used by those whose feet are to be washed should be elevated, so that an elderly priest need not stoop too much.

If this solution is not feasible, I do not think it is contrary to the overall sense of the rite to find other practical solutions resulting in a similar effect, provided the rite be carried out with decorum.

A-4: The use of the crucifix, a cross with the figure of Christ crucified, is obligatory for the Good Friday celebrations of the Adoration of the Cross.

This is made clear by the rubrics which, in one form of the rite, describe how this cross may be progressively unveiled, showing first the top of the cross but not the face, then the right arm, and finally the entire body.

After this celebration on Good Friday afternoon, and until the Easter Vigil, Catholics genuflect before the crucifix; they would not do so before a simple cross.

This liturgical situation is different from the pious practice of the Way of the Cross, where widespread custom prefers the use of a simple cross rather than a crucifix. This is the practice followed in the Holy Father's widely televised Good Friday "Via Crucis" at the Colosseum. ZE04032321

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Follow-up: Washing of the Feet [04-06-2004]

Our replies regarding feet washing and the use of the crucifix rather than a cross (March 23) generated a high level of correspondence some of which was very informative and which also leads me to review some of my previous statements.

Regarding washing only men's feet on Holy Thursday, several readers asked about a statement published by the U.S. bishops' liturgy committee in 1987 (see www.usccb.org/liturgy/q&a/general/feet.htm).

Paragraphs 4 and 5 read:

"Because the gospel of the mandatum read on Holy Thursday also depicts Jesus as the 'Teacher and Lord' who humbly serves his disciples by performing this extraordinary gesture which goes beyond the laws of hospitality, the element of humble service has accentuated the celebration of the foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite that both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world. Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service.

"While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which mentions only men ('viri selecti'), it may nevertheless be said that the intention to emphasize service along with charity in the celebration of the rite is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, 'who came to serve and not to be served,' that all members of the Church must serve one another in love."

One correspondent, a woman, asks: "Did the U.S. conference have the authority to change the rubric of the Sacramentary? Did it get the approval of Rome? Certain dioceses will allow men only to have their feet washed; Jesus chose 12 men, his apostles."

I was not unaware of this statement. But since the entire text is couched in ambiguous terms and does not claim any authority whatsoever (in spite of the aura of officialdom in its being published by the liturgy committee) I did not consider it a relevant source.

What is surprising in this document is that it does not question the premise that a pastor or even a bishop has the authority to change or vary a specific rite at his own behest. He does not have such authority except where the law specifically allows him to do so.

This said, other paragraphs of the above statement correctly recall that this rite was reintroduced into parish celebrations relatively recently (1955) and so, as a rite, cannot claim a long liturgical tradition directly linking it to Christ's action on Holy Thursday although this is the obvious interpretation.

Thus, at least hypothetically, it could be subject to a reinterpretation to "emphasize service along with charity" in such a way as to be also open to women.

Yet the proper authority for such a reinterpretation is the Holy See or a two-thirds vote of an episcopal conference ratified by the Holy See and not an individual bishop or pastor.

Another correspondent affirmed that the Holy See had informed an American cardinal that women were not excluded from the rite, but the writer was unable to provide sources. I have been unable to corroborate this affirmation from any official source. The above-mentioned statement from the liturgy committee explicitly states that no further official pronunciations have been made since 1987 (although the new Latin missal reconfirms the rubric regarding only men being called). If this affirmation is confirmed, then obviously our position would have to change.

Several other readers questioned the strength of my argument regarding the obligatory nature of using a crucifix during the Good Friday adoration of the cross.

They point out, and correctly I think, that the actual text of the rubrics does not specifically state that a crucifix be used. They also note that my use of the first form of the rite to uphold my point was more a description of how the rite is usually carried out than an analysis of the rubrics.

Also, some official documents such as the U.S. bishops' recent "Built on Living Stones" (No. 83) specifically allow either a cross or a crucifix for veneration on Good Friday.

Part of the difficulty is that Latin uses the same word for cross and crucifix, although in liturgical documents over the last several centuries the word "cross" almost invariably meant crucifix. A cross without the figure of Christ was practically unknown in a liturgical context.

Accordingly, I agree with a correspondent from New Zealand, who noted there is little significance in "the change to 'dextrum brachium Crucis' instead of 'brachium dextrum Crucifixi' as one of the many changes, some merely stylistic, that the Second Vatican Council revision of the Missal made in the rubrics of Pope Pius XII's reform of the 'Triduum Sacrum' liturgy. Rather, I see this change as acceptance of the inevitability, when uncovering the right arm of the figure of Christ crucified, of unveiling also the whole right arm of the cross."

The new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) does at times specify that the cross used at Mass should have the figure of Christ. But this specification has only become necessary because of recent attempts to introduce figureless crosses into churches.

At other times the Latin document simply refers to this crucifix as the cross, such as when it describes the rite of incensing. Thus I do not believe that each time the Latin GIRM or the rubrics do not specify that the cross have a figure, it follows that either a cross or a crucifix may be used.

It is also true, as another reader states, that "a cross without a corpus harkens back to the original form of this rite, derived from the Jerusalem rite, in which the actual relic of the cross was venerated. For this reason the hymns all speak of the 'crux.'"

If a church were to possess a relic of the true cross of Christ, then of course it should be used on Good Friday. But this is a rare privilege and so historically the use of the crucifix as a substitute came to predominate.

Therefore, while admitting that my former argument lacked force, I would contend that the overall weight of traditional liturgical practice falls heavily in favor of the use of the crucifix.

I would further move that the use of the crucifix is much better from a pastoral point of view. Once more I concur with our writer from New Zealand: "'Venite, adoremus' is the response of the people at the Good Friday liturgical service, and we kneel in worship. We do not worship a mere cross ... but the Person who died on a cross." And it seems best to emphasize this by using the cross with the image of the Crucified.

Another reader asked where to find the document on the removal of holy water during Lent.

This document comes from the review Notitiae, the official organ of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, which unfortunately does not yet publish this review online. Fortunately this document was published in an interesting site called www.catholicliturgy.com.

Finally, I would like to thank all our correspondents, especially those who disagreed with me, for the exemplary Christian courtesy used in their communications. I desire a blessed Easter to all. ZE04040622

 

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