My parish liturgy committee has decided to allow both men and women to
take part in the washing of the feet at the liturgy on Holy Thursday. I have
always heard that only men may have their feet washed. Which does the Church
rubric for Holy Thursday, under the title WASHING OF FEET, reads:
"Depending on pastoral circumstance, the washing of feet follows the
homily. The men who have been chosen (viri selecti) are led by
the ministers to chairs prepared at 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 phrase viri selecti, the Chairman of the Bishops Committee on the
Liturgy, after a review of the matter by the committee, authorized the
following response which appeared in the BCL Newsletter of February
Question: What is the significance of the Holy Thursday foot washing
Jesus washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper as a sign of
the new commandment that Christians should love one another: "Such as my
love has been for you, so must your love be for each other. This is how
all will know you for my disciples: by your love for one another" (see
John 13, 34-35). For centuries the Church has imitated the Lord through
the ritual enactment of the new commandment of Jesus Christ in the
washing of feet on Holy Thursday.
the practice had fallen into disuse for a long time in parish
celebrations, it was restored in 1955 by Pope Pius XII as a part of the
general reform of Holy Week. At that time the traditional significance
of the rite of foot washing was stated by the Sacred Congregation of
Rites in the following words: "Where the washing of feet, to show the
Lord's commandment about fraternal charity, is performed in a Church
according to the rubrics of the restored Ordo of Holy Week, the faithful
should be instructed on the profound meaning of this sacred rite and
should be taught that it is only proper that they should abound in works
of Christian charity on this day."1
principal and traditional meaning of the Holy Thursday mandatum, as
underscored by the decree of the Congregation, is the biblical
injunction of Christian charity: Christ's disciples are to love one
another. For this reason, the priest who presides at the Holy Thursday
liturgy portrays the biblical scene of the gospel by washing the feet of
some of the faithful.
the gospel of the mandatum read on Holy Thursday also depicts Jesus as
the "Teacher and Lord" who humbly serves his disciples by performing
this extraordinary gesture which goes beyond the laws of hospitality,2
the element of humble service has accentuated the celebration of the
foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In
this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite both men
and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service
that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world.
Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which
not only charity is signified but also humble service.
this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which
mentions only men ("viri selecti"), it may nevertheless be said that the
intention to emphasize service along with charity in the celebration of
the rite is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical
command of the Lord, "who came to serve and not to be served," that all
members of the Church must serve one another in love.
liturgy is always an act of ecclesial unity and Christian charity, of
which the Holy Thursday foot washing rite is an eminent sign. All should
obey the Lord's new commandment to love one another with an abundance of
love, especially at this most sacred time of the liturgical year when
the Lord's passion, death, and resurrection are remembered and
celebrated in the powerful rites of the Triduum.3
Congregation of Rites, Instruction on the Correct Use of the Restored
Ordo of Holy Week, November 16, 1955 (Washington, DC: National Catholic
Welfare Conference Publications Office, 1955), page 6.
biblical times it was prescribed that the host of a banquet was to
provide water (and a basin) so that his guests could wash their hands
before sitting down to table. Although a host might also provide water
for travelers to wash their own feet before entering the house, the host
himself would not wash the feet of his guests. According to the Talmud
the washing of feet was forbidden to any Jew except those in slavery.
In the controversies between Hillel and Shammai (cf. Shabbat 14a-b)
Shammai ruled that guests were to wash their hands to correct "tumat
yadayim" or "impurity of hands" (cf. Ex 30, 17 and Lv 15, 11). Priests
were always to wash their hands before eating consecrated meals. The
Pharisees held that all meals were in a certain sense "consecrated"
because of table fellowship.
Jesus' action of washing the feet of his disciples was unusual for his
gesture went beyond the required laws of hospitality (washing of hands)
to what was, in appearance, a menial task. The Lord's action was
probably unrelated to matters of ritual purity according to the Law.
brief overview of the restoration of the foot washing rite in 1955, see
W. J. O'Shea, "Mandatum," New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX, 146, and
W. J. O'Shea, "Holy Thursday," New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII,
105-107; Walter D. Miller, Revised Ceremonial of Holy Week (New York:
Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1971), p. 43. See also Prosper
Gueranger, OSB, The Liturgical Year, Volume VI, Passiontide and Holy
Week (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1949), pp. 395-401. For the
historical background of the many forms of this rite, see the following
studies: Pier Franco Beatrice, La lavanda dei piedi: Contributo alla
storia delle antiche liturgie cristiane (Rome: C.L.V. Edizioni
Liturgiche, 1983); "Lotio pedum" in Hermann Schmidt, Hebdomada Sancta,
Volume II (Rome: Herder, 1956-1957); Annibale Bugnini, CM, and C. Braga,
CM, Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratus in Biblioteca "Ephemerides
Liturgicae" Sectio Historica 25 (Rome: Edizioni Liturgiche, 1956), pp.
73-75; Theodor Klauser, A Short History of the Western Liturgy: An
Account and Some Reflections, second edition (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1979), p. 81.
This is the
latest statement of this Secretariat on the question. No subsequent
legislation or instructions have necessitated a modification in the
Committee on the Liturgy
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 4th Street, N.E., Washington, DC 20017-1194 (202) 541-3060