The Holy Thursday Washing of Feet – The Changes Made by Pope Francis
This year, for the first time in the history of the Church, it will be permissible for bishops and priests to wash the feet of women at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Pope Francis has, in recent months, issued a change to the official liturgical books whereby - with his authority as Vicar of Christ and Shepherd of the Universal Church - he has modified the liturgical law and created a new meaning for the Holy Thursday foot washing ritual. Pope Francis has the authority to make this change to the liturgy - the entire foot washing ritual itself (as being during Mass) was only recently created by Pope Pius XII in 1955, thus it can certainly be changed by the current Pope.
We consider now the previous meaning of the foot washing ritual. As put forward last year, the meaning of the foot washing from the time of its inclusion in the Mass until last Holy Thursday (2015) was twofold: indicating both charity to our neighbor and the particular charity which priests must show to their people. Following the pattern of Christ at the Last Supper, the ritual had a priestly significance to it (as the Apostles were washed to be purified for ordination to the priesthood after the pattern of Leviticus 8). It was on account of this priestly character that the ritual was restricted solely to men - for the liturgical books specified "men", using the Latin word "vir" which means specifically "man" as opposed to "woman" or "child".
This year, however, Pope Francis has recreated the ritual and given a radically new meaning to the foot washing. Retaining the previous emphasis on charity, the new rite removes any priestly connotation and instead connects the ritual to the love of Christ for the whole people of God. Thus, Pope Francis has removed the prior restriction of the foot washing which limited it to adult men only and has now extended it to all the people of God (that is, to all who have been baptized). The choice of those whose feet are to be washed now is explicitly meant to be representative of all the baptized - women and men, children and adults, rich and poor, sick and healthy, infants and the elderly, lay people and religious monks and nuns as well as deacons and priests, single people and married, criminals and those who have never been convicted, etc. All the various distinctions we can think of are meant to be represented in the foot washing.
Thus, it is quite clear that Pope Francis does not so much have in mind issues of the equality of men and women (unlike many who have been advocating for female foot washing in recent years, Pope Francis is no feminist nor does he believe this ritual should be used as a way to push the issue of the role of women in the Church), but rather our Holy Father is focusing on the representation of the whole Church in the rite. Therefore, if a priest does wash women's feet on Holy Thursday, it would be the intention of the Pope that a wide variety of persons would be chosen. Perhaps also it would be good to include people of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well. This would properly emphasize that the Church is made up of a great diversity of people.
However, it is important to note that Pope Francis’ recent change to the foot washing ritual is a clear indicator of the widespread and rampant abuse of the ritual in our country in previous years. By the new changes, it is only beginning this Holy Thursday (2016) that it is permissible for any other than adult men to have their feet washed in the rite. It took a special act of the Pope to change this rite, and only by this act has it become permissible for a priest or bishop to wash the feet of any other than adult men, without special permission from the Holy See. There can now be no doubt as to whether washing women’s feet was an abuse in previous years, since the Pope himself had to issue a change to the law to allow this practice beginning in 2016 -- if it had been permissible before, Pope Francis would not have had to change the law. As the US Bishop’s statement reads, “At the instruction of Pope Francis, the rite of the washing of feet on Holy Thursday has been modified to lawfully permit a wider representation of the People of God to take part in the ceremony.” Prior to this modification, it was not lawfully permitted for any other than adult men to have their feet washed in this rite.
However, it is worth noting that the foot washing ritual on Holy Thursday is not required as part of the Mass. In fact, it is only to be included if the priest believes it to be of pastoral benefit to the people -- as the official liturgical books state, “After the homily, where a pastoral reason suggests it, the Foot Washing follows.” This indicates that the rite is not generally to be thought of as essential to the Mass, but should only be included if there is a good reason to do so. The initial thought of the Church seems to be that the rite is not part of Mass, but may be included if the priest believes it to be of benefit to the people. Therefore, we will not be including the foot washing ritual in the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper this year at Corpus Christi, for the following reasons.
Firstly, given that there has been such widespread abuse of this ritual in recent years, there is massive confusion about the rite and even the new changes to the ritual commonly are being viewed through a lens of feminism.
And, second, there is danger that the many and rapid changes to the liturgical rites especially in an area of much confusion and misinformation could reduce the liturgy so that it would appear to be a banal fabrication which is changed to suit the culture and people of the time. This is something against which Pope Benedict XVI often warned -- and, as the pastor of Corpus Christi, I fear this danger likewise. As the rite is of recent invention (1955) and has already been changed numerous times (1970 and 2016), it is my judgment that it would not be of pastoral benefit to our parish to include it in the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.
That being said, we are grateful to Pope Francis for his care and concern for the liturgy of the Church and for the people of God. We affirm a great love and filial devotion to our Holy Father, as we include him in our prayers in a special way during this sacred time.