During the Holy Thursday evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, it is permitted for the priest to perform a ritual foot washing in imitation of the Lord who washed the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper. This practice takes various forms in parishes throughout the world and even in our own city. The typical Catholic may wonder, What is the “right way” to wash feet on Holy Thursday? Is there a “right way”?
As with all things in the Sacred Liturgy, there is most certainly a “right way” – and the “right way” is very clearly indicated by the Vatican (both by the Pope himself and by the appropriate Vatican Congregations). Not only in the liturgical books themselves but also in numerous clarifications which have been given both to bishops and to the lay faithful, the Vatican has told us how to perform this rite.
First, what does the Roman Missal (the book that the priest uses to celebrate the Mass) actually say about the foot washing at the Holy Thursday evening Mass? “The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest … goes to each one, and … pours water over each one’s feet and then dries them.”
Notice that the Missal speaks of “men who have been chosen” and further indicates that it is the priest alone who washes feet. This tells us precisely what is the “right way” to do the foot washing.
Must only men have their feet washed? Yes, the word used in the official Latin edition of the Missal (viri) means men and not women. This was clarified by the Vatican in 1988 (Congregation for Divine Worship, Paschalis Solemnitas, 51). Further clarification was provided in 2008, the same Vatican Congregation stated, “the washing of feet is reserved to ‘chosen men’ (viri selecti), that is, male persons.” (Dubium of 20 May 2008) While it is true that bishops could request permission to deviate from this law and permit women’s feet to be washed in particular circumstances, Bishop Warfel has not received this permission. Hence, it is contrary to the law of the Church and a liturgical abuse for a priest to wash women’s feet at the Holy Thursday evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
Must these individuals be chosen ahead of time? Yes, the Missal clearly states that the men “have been chosen”, i.e. they are to be selected before the celebration of the Mass.
Must the priest be the only one who washes feet at the Holy Thursday evening Mass? Yes, again it is clear that “the priest goes to each one….”
What does this tell us about the “right way” to do the foot washing? From this, we can see that it is contrary to the Church’s vision of the Holy Thursday Mass for “foot washing stations” to be set up around the church where anyone and everyone can simply come forward and both have their feet washed as well as wash the feet of others. Such a practice violates Church law both with regard to the fact that the men must be chosen beforehand and also because the priest alone is directed to wash feet.
To be clear, at the Holy Thursday evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, only men can have their feet washed, and only the priest can wash the feet of these men – and these men must be chosen before the Mass begins. Anything else is an abuse, and contrary to the mind of the Church.
Question and Answer – Washing Feet on Holy Thursday
Didn’t Pope Francis wash women’s feet?! Yes, his Holiness Pope Francis did wash the feet of women in a manner which is contrary to the law of the Church. However, the Pope is not bound by the liturgical laws in the same way as others – he is Supreme Legislator and therefore is permitted to make deviations from the universal law. Since the Pope promulgates the law, he can dispense from the law and he can even dispense himself from the law. The Pope did nothing wrong when he washed women’s feet.
Doesn’t that mean that it’s ok for other priests to wash women’s feet? No, it does not. Pope Francis is allowed to dispense himself from this liturgical law, but this does not automatically dispense all other priests. The Pope certainly could change this law, but he has not – nor has he ever given any indication that he wants other priests to wash women’s feet. The law of the Church still states only men.
But can’t the bishop allow it? Yes, the bishop of a local diocese could allow for women’s feet to be washed on Holy Thursday. However, he would have to petition the Holy See for a dispensation from the law. Bishop Warfel has never received this dispensation. Therefore, in the Diocese of Great Falls – Billings, priests are not permitted to wash women’s feet. Neither are “foot washing stations” in which the people wash each others’ feet permitted.
What’s the big deal? That is a good question. It is hard to understand why some people make such a fuss insisting that the priest should or must wash the feet of women on Holy Thursday. It shouldn’t be a big deal at all – the priests should simply do what the Church tells them to do, and the people should be grateful to be shepherded by priests who are obedient to Holy Mother Church.
Can a priest or bishop wash the feet of women in another ceremony outside of the Mass? Absolutely. In fact, there are many reasons why this might be a good practice. We know that, in the glories of the 12th century, the Pope would wash the feet of 12 deacons at the conclusion of his Holy Thursday Mass, and then wash the feet of 13 poor people after his evening meal. Bishop Warfel performed such a foot washing this year at the St. Vincent de Paul in Great Falls. This practice is very meaningful, but it has a different meaning from the foot washing at the Holy Thursday evening Mass.
Why does the Church insist that, at the Holy Thursday evening Mass, only the priest is allowed to wash feet, and only previously chosen men are allowed to have their feet washed? What does it all mean? The washing of feet at the Holy Thursday evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper calls to mind the institution of the Holy Priesthood. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave the Church these two gifts: The Eucharist and the Priesthood. When the Lord washed the feet of his Twelve Apostles, this called to mind the ritual washing with which Aaron and his sons were cleansed before being ordained priests (Leviticus 8). For this reason, in more ancient times, only the bishop washed feet and only priests (twelve of them) had their feet washed – and the foot washing was not practiced in parish churches at all. The ritual foot washing at the Holy Thursday evening Mass is meant to remind us of how Jesus ordained twelve men as his priests, and through this priesthood he gives us the Eucharist. Because only men can be priests, the Church currently requires that only men have their feet washed at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
Below, you will find a sermon on the theological meaning of the Triduum and why the Church currently requires that only the priest wash feet and that he wash the feet of men only.