Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday


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

Q: I understand that it is in fact liturgically incorrect to have the main celebrant at the Holy Thursday Mass wash the feet of women. Correct? — J.C., Ballina, Ireland. During the Holy Thursday liturgy at our parish, there are a number of foot-washing stations set up around the Church, and the people in the pews get up and bring someone else to one of the stations and wash their feet. Most of the people in Church take part in this, washing feet and in turn having their feet washed. It takes quite a while. Is this liturgically correct? Are there any norms for foot-washing during the Holy Thursday Mass? — B.S., Naperville, Illinois. On Holy Thursday, at the washing of feet, the people, mostly youth, after having their foot washed, preceded to wash the next person's foot. Then they placed four bowls of water and four places before the altar, and the congregation was told to come forward and have their hands washed by the same people who just had their foot washed. We didn't. Everything felt out of order. — E.K., Freehold, New Jersey

A: We already addressed the theme of washing women's feet in our column of March 23, 2004, and the subsequent follow-up on April 6.

Since then, there has been no change in the universal norm which reserves this rite to men as stated in the circular letter "Paschales Solemnitatis" (Jan. 16, 1988) and the rubrics of the 2002 Latin Roman Missal.

No. 51 of the circular letter states: "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."

About a year ago, however, the Holy See, while affirming that the men-only rule remains the norm, did permit a U.S. bishop to also wash women's feet if he considered it pastorally necessary in specific cases. This permission was for a particular case and from a strictly legal point of view has no value outside the diocese in question.

I believe that the best option, as "Paschales Solemnitatis" states, is to maintain the tradition and explain its proper significance.

This means preparing the rite following liturgical law to the letter, explain its meaning as an evocation of Christ's gesture of service and charity to his apostles, and avoid getting embroiled in controversies that try to attribute to the rite meanings it was never meant to have.

Regarding the place and number of those whose feet are to be washed, the rubric, which has remained unvaried in the new missal, describes the rite as follows:

"Depending on pastoral circumstances, the washing of feet may follow the homily.

"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 number of men selected for the rite is not fixed. Twelve is the most common option but they may be fewer in order to adjust to the available space.

Likewise the place chosen is usually within or near the presbytery so that the rite is clearly visible to the assembly.

Thus, the logical sense of the rubric requires the priest, representing Christ, washing feet of a group of men taken from the assembly, symbolizing the apostles, in a clearly visible area.

The variations described above — of washing the feet of the entire congregation, of people washing each other's feet (or hands), or doing so in situations that are not visible to all — tend to undermine the sense of this rite within the concrete context of the Mass of the Lord's Supper.

Such practices, by greatly extending the time required, tend to convert a meaningful, but optional, rite into the focal point of the celebration. And that detracts attention from the commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, the principal motive of the celebration.

In other circumstances, such as retreats or so called para-liturgical services, it can be perfectly legitimate to perform foot-washing rites inspired by Christ's example and by the liturgy. In such cases none of the limitations imposed by the concrete liturgical context of the Holy Thursday Mass need apply. ZE06032820

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Follow-up: Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday [04-11-2006]

In the wake of our article on foot washing (March 28), one reader "begged to differ" that the rubric in the missal stipulated that only men's feet be washed.

He wrote: "Clearly, as we have been told a million times, in churchspeak 'men' means both males and females, as in 'who for us men and our salvation.' As we also know, since 'Liturgicam Authenticam' the Church has forbidden the use of modern English that would avoid the possible confusion, and so those who produced these statements are obligated to use the term 'men' instead of simply saying 'those who.' Either we have a univocal use of the term 'men' or we have nothing."

Our reader apparently did not have access to the original Latin text of the rubric in question. That rubric does not use the generic "Homo" which in some contexts includes both sexes, but rather the specific "Vir" which refers only to males.

I also fear he has caricatured the translation norms of "Liturgicam Authenticam." Rather than mandating the generic "man" as a univocal translation for "Homo," the document inculcates prudence in translating this term whenever it is subject to several shades of theological meaning.

For example, the expression "son of man" in the Old Testament can mean simply "human being" but in some cases Church tradition has interpreted it prophetically as referring to Christ.

I am likewise not convinced that the generic use of man to include all human beings no longer forms part of "modern English."

Certainly the language needs to adapt to acknowledge the fact that women participate in many endeavors which were formally male preserves. But I see no reason to engage in linguistic contortions so as to avoid the generic use of "man" when this is the best literary option.

Finally, a reader from Belgium wrote a thought-provoking — albeit somewhat tongue in cheek — note on those who proposed hand washing instead of foot washing on Holy Thursday: "It is worthwhile pointing out ... that the only hand washing mentioned in the Scriptures around Holy Week is that done by Pontius Pilate — hardly a positive example to be followed." ZE06041120

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