Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday: Foot-Washing Fiasco

I have a post about the Holy Thursday foot-washing rite over at Catholic Stand today. It's a revision of the post I did last year on the same topic. Here are the opening paragraphs: I noted in a comment, Catholic Stand opted not to publish my article, so I'm pasting the rest of it in down below. You can now read the whole thing right here!

One of the most egregious, widespread, and commonly accepted liturgical abuses in the Church will take place on Holy Thursday: all over the US, as parish after parish struggles to make sure they can be considered “inclusive”, priests will wash the feet of women and children during the Holy Thursday Mass.

It’s bad enough that in many parishes, women’s feet are washed. The washing of the feet is directly linked to the male-only priesthood; the Mass on Holy Thursday has as its focus the institution of the Priesthood. At the Last Supper, Our Lord washed the feet of the apostles, all of whom were male. That was no accident. Washing women’s feet, just to be inclusive, sends the wrong message and a wrong teaching about the Holy Thursday Mass.

The washing of children’s feet, I maintain, trivializes the rite. I say this, NOT because I think children are unimportant. I do not think that at all. But when you involve children in just about anything that is generally done by adults, it becomes merely “cute”. Children are unpredictable: they giggle, they squirm, they say funny things, and they are often just plain adorable.

That’s all well and good, and I enjoy children’s innocent antics as much as the next person. But that’s not what the ceremony of the washing of the feet is about.

When 12 adult men have their feet washed, they look uncomfortable. I think that’s appropriate. Don’t you think the apostles were uncomfortable with it? Didn’t Peter even try to refuse to have his feet washed?! It is a humbling experience to have one’s feet washed by anyone, let alone a priest, who is an alter Christus. And it is a humbling experience for the foot-washer as well – as it should be.

Twelve men having their feet washed by the bishop becomes a serious rite, one with meaning, symbolism, and significance. It becomes a mystical experience for all concerned. It is not “cute”, and it was never intended to be.

This standard response that “the USCCB says it’s okay” is probably familiar to all who have ever voiced an objection to including women and/or children in the washing of the feet. In fact, a couple of years ago, I was told exactly that when I complained to the bishop that the feet of twelve children were to be washed at the Holy Thursday Mass. My objections were summarily dismissed because, “Oh, that happens in many places in the US. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s an effort to be more inclusive.”

To the pastor  of souls who employs this kind of thinking, I might point out that, in the interest of: a) "pastoral prudence", "evangelical charity" and avoiding "divisiveness" (and all those other buzzwords bishops are wont to bandy about); and b) fulfilling the promise of obedience to the Holy Father he made on the day of his own episcopal ordination (not to mention Vatican II's Sacrosanctum Concilium n. 22[1] and Canon 838[2]); it would behoove him to do what the Church obviously intends. Anything else merely demonstrates that he thinks he is the master and not the servant of the Sacred Liturgy – that the liturgy is his personal plaything, to be made and shaped according to his personal whims.

In February 1987, the USCCB claimed, via the Chairman of the Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy, that the washing of feet is merely an act of charity, and thus may properly include both men and women. It took a little less than a year for the Vatican to issue a corrective document entitled Paschales Solemnitatis which said (emphasis added):

The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day [Holy Thursday]... This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.

Since this document was published, there has been nothing new from the Vatican that might indicate a change in “policy”.

Here’s the bottom line: The Lord washed the feet of the men he was about to make priests at the Eucharist, so this act is intimately connected to the priesthood. The Holy Thursday Mass commemorates and re-enacts that act. The rubrics and documents that regulate this rite state that only men are to have their feet washed; that only a priest or bishop should do the washing; and that it is only the feet that are to be washed. When some other variation is done, it confuses the faithful and dilutes the meaning of the rite. Such variations constitute a grave abuse because they detract from the sacred character of the priesthood instituted by Christ Himself. 

[1] SC 22. (1) Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See, and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
(2) In virtue of power conceded by law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of bishops' conferences, legitimately established, with competence in given territories.
(3) Therefore no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.

[2]Can. 838 ß1 The ordering and guidance of the sacred liturgy depends solely upon the authority of the Church, namely, that of the Apostolic See and, as provided by law, that of the diocesan Bishop.
ß2 It is the prerogative of the Apostolic See to regulate the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, to publish liturgical books and review their vernacular translations, and to be watchful that liturgical regulations are everywhere faithfully observed.


  1. Thought I would share this, Dr. Boyd.

    It is from the meditation booklet "The Magnificat Lenten Companion"

    Here is a partial from the today's reflection (at the end).


    "Christian charity flows from the Eucharist, which is the gift that Christ on this holy night left his Church. He confides the Eucharist to the priests of all time. The disciples whose feet Jesus washes *represent all the priests who throughout time serve the Church*. Christ further commands priests to instruct the world about the true nature of divine charity." (stars added)

    Reflection based on John 13:1-15
    Father Romanus Cessario, O.P.

  2. Yes the Pope did wash the feet of 12 prisoners one of whom was a Muslim female. While washing the feet of women and children may not be prohibited in the rubrics it certainly seems to depart from the example given by Christ and what the "message" was when Christ did what he did.

  3. I am becoming feeble and frail. I am scandalized over and over again. And yesterday Fr. John Malloy, A Shepherd's Voice left this earth + . I admit I am distressed.

  4. That the Pope would essentially ignore (probably accurate to say "violate") Canon Law regarding the washing of feet is not a good sign. I am concerned about his apparent lack of support for the traditions which once made the Church UNIVERSAL. He is "soft" on the EF Mass and while one cannot argue with his pro life track record I'm afraid he is going to simply reinforce the "social justice" adherents who excuse all sorts of wrongs in order to be inclusive. I pray for the Pope, but thus far I have serious concerns about him.

  5. I confess, Dr. Jay, that I share the anxiety of a lot of people who are expressing sincere and legitimate concern that violation of liturgical norms is not part of the solution.

    Fr. Z has posted a recent article which attempts to get at Pope Francis' intentions behind his actions that are shaking things up. There is much speculation that the Holy Father is adjusting the media's perception and portrayal of the Church by modelling simplicity and compassion. To be sure, the Church is suffering a PR problem. It wouldn't be the first time. Our brothers and sisters of the early Church were routinely condemned as atheists for rejecting the pagan gods, and accused of being cannibals for eating the Body and drinking the Blood of Christ. The unrelenting faithfulness and witness of the saints converted an empire. I'm just guessing, but I do not think the Catholics of yesteryear felt the need to depart from holy Tradition in order to win over hostile pagans. And, to the best of my knowledge, the English recusants didn't compromise the sacred rites to appease their persecutors.

    I do trust that Pope Francis is the man for the job. My hope is that the liturgical renewal begun under Papa-emeritus Benedict XVI will continue AND Catholics, especially in the West, will be infused with a zeal for evangelization.


  6. I guess we will have to trust the Hily Spirit in all of this. Btw, I think Catholic Stand opted not to publish my article; sorry for the incomplete post. I'm away from home and computer, and I have difficulty editing post via phone.

  7. Yes. I looked at CS ? When you are home again I hope you can post it here . Dr. Boyd , I read once that Jesus washing the feet of the apostles was an act of cleansing in the 'ordination' of the men to Priesthood. This would perhaps say that humility is not the totality of Jesus' intention. Do you have any thought on this ?

  8. My head is swimming over this issue (no pun intended). I wish the Pope would've just stuck to tradition in order to keep our feet on the ground. The result is something like chaos and controversy. It will probably subside in time and hopefully nothing will take its place or transcend it.

    Frankly, the text in the Gospel of John (13:1-17) has always puzzled me. There seems to be a deeper meaning below the literal text.

    Also, notice that the text refers to disciples rather than the Apostles or The Twelve (or Eleven). There is difference between disciples and apostles. Disciples include both men and women.

    In any case, I am troubled by so much chaos in the RC Church (& Christianity too) today. I am dizzy with trying to make sense of all the distinctions various factions are making. Many points are logical but the end result is a swirl of perspectives. Christianity needs a unitive force (e.g., Holy Spirit) but where is It? Why God why?

  9. No one seems to care about rubrics anymore


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