Options for the Washing of Feet

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Options for the Washing of Feet

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is a priest, in a one-priest parish, to do on Holy Thursday when he cannot kneel down for the Washing of Feet? What are the options? — J.K., Opelika, Alabama

A: This is probably going to be an increasing difficulty for many priests in the coming years.

The first, and simplest, option is to omit the rite altogether. Although many are unaware of the fact, the Washing of Feet is an optional rite. The rubrics of the Mass of the Lord's Supper say, "Depending on pastoral circumstances, the washing of feet may follow the homily." Certainly, at times it seems that, in liturgy, nothing is more obligatory than an option. But in this case if the priest is no longer physically up to handling the Washing of Feet, then he may leave it out.

If he is loath to forgo the Washing of Feet, given the pastoral value of this once-a-year rite, it is possible to set things up so that those whose feet are to be washed sit on an elevated base so as to be more readily accessible to the priest. This was the system adopted by Pope John Paul II in the latter years of his pontificate when Parkinson's disease impeded his kneeling and bending over.

If setting up an elevated base for 12 people is too complicated, then the number can be reduced to fit the space. They could also rotate by two's or three's after their feet have been washed, provided that the process can be carried out with pause and decorum.

As a rule the men whose feet are to be washed should be advised ahead of time; this is especially required when the celebrant has some physical difficulty. A practice session before Mass can be very helpful in ensuring that the rite runs smoothly and with the dignity and solemnity required by the moment and importance of the celebration.

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Follow-up: Options for the Washing of Feet [5-3-2011]

There were several queries regarding the Holy Thursday washing of feet when an elderly priest is impeded from bending over (see April 12).

One reader asked, "Could a solution be that the chairman of the pastoral council helps with washing the feet?"

I do not believe this would be a solution. Although a priest other than the principal celebrant could perform this duty, only a priest, as representative of Christ during the Lord's Supper, is foreseen. No matter how worthy the chair of the pastoral council might be, he (or she) cannot represent Christ in this particular ritual context that evokes his service to the apostles.

Other readers asked if the number could be more than 12. While there is nothing specified in the norms, the number 12 is the logical maximum as this corresponds to the number of the apostles. A larger number is likely to change the meaning of the rite as representative of Christ's act.

In a similar vein a reader suggested that hand washing could substitute foot washing as an alternative. Once more, this is not what Our Lord did. Also, in liturgical tradition hand washing usually symbolizes personal purification rather than service. As another reader once observed, "The only hand washing mentioned in the Scriptures around Holy Week is that done by Pontius Pilate — hardly a positive example to be followed."

Finally, several correspondents mentioned that "Father did not address the 'hot' topic of women having their feet washed. Is this permitted?"

We have already dealt amply with this subject in earlier columns on March 23, 2004, and April 6, 2004, as well as on March 28, 2006, and April 11, 2006.

As can be seen from these columns the present legal status of this question is so confused that one can only conclude that the law is like the English language. It is written in one way and pronounced in another.

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