VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ decision to permit women to have their feet washed, and not those of only men, in the Holy Thursday mandatum liturgical ceremony is a return to an understanding of the rite that existed up until the middle of the 20th century, the Vatican has said.
On Jan. 21, the Vatican announced that the Holy Father had written a letter to Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, informing the cardinal that the Pope had decided to change the rite “after careful consideration.”
From now on, the decree stated, the rite will include “all the people of God.”
For many years, Pope Francis has acted contrary to recent mandatum tradition by visiting prisons on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of women as well as men, and non-Catholics as well as Catholics, both as cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires and now as Pope. But his actions are in continuity with older Church Tradition.
“What the Holy Father is doing in this new decree is returning to an understanding of the washing of the feet prior to Pius XII’s modification of the Holy Week ceremonies in 1955,” Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, told the Register Jan. 28.
He explained that Pius XII’s modification moved the Mass of the Lord’s Supper from morning to evening, which meant that the mandatum that used to take place during vespers in the evening of Maundy Thursday “would have been displaced, had it not been inserted into the celebration of the Mass under Pius XII’s new norms.”
From 1955, the tradition of the mandatum, which dates back to the earliest times of the Church, had been limited to men and became symbolic of Jesus’ washing the feet of the 12 apostles and the institution of the male priesthood.
“What has happened since then,” Archbishop Roche continued, “is that, because it was reserved to men, this was considered a sign of ordination.”
But he said that, prior to 1955, the feet of both female and male laypeople used to be washed; and in some dioceses, “the poor had their feet washed and their lives rehabilitated through the generosity of the local bishop.”
True to Vatican II
Critics have pointed out that the change isn’t exactly reflective of the pre-1955 rite because women used to wash women’s feet and men washed men’s.
“That’s true,” said Archbishop Roche, “but what you need to understand is that this was a pontifical act, reserved to bishops, abbots and abbesses, and not open to wide use in parishes and communities. But the fact it was done for the poor and was not just a clerical matter indicates that the theological understanding wasn’t very restricted.”
As to the use of the term “people of God,” the archbishop said that definition is taken from the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, and means baptized Christians. All of Pope Francis’ theology “always goes back to Vatican II,” he said. “The document of paramount importance is Lumen Gentium.”
Some reports suggested the rite included other religions, but that is not true, although the Pope has washed the feet of Muslims. “The Pope has done that in very restricted circumstances,” Archbishop Roche said. “It is not usual for the Triduum to be celebrated in prisons.”
He added, “Papal liturgy has always been different from the Roman liturgy. There are certain elements of the papal liturgy that have never been part and parcel of the entire practice of the Roman rite. ... They are reserved to the Pope, and one has to keep that in mind.”
Some have been concerned about the way the decree was enacted and believe it was imposed on the Congregation for Divine Worship to execute with no consultation. Vatican sources told the Register that any change to the Roman Missal, such as this one, normally requires convening a plenary meeting of the congregation so that all members of the dicastery can give further consideration to such a reform and ensure it is in conformity with Tradition, the liturgy and doctrine. Authoritative sources also said that Cardinal Sarah was very reluctant to enact the decree but did so out of obedience to the Holy Father.
But Archbishop Roche rejected such charges, noting that, in his letter to Cardinal Sarah, the Pope referenced “our conversation together.” The archbishop added that the Pope had also discussed the change with Cardinal Sarah’s predecessor, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera.
“The Pope is the supreme legislator,” Archbishop Roche said. “If it went through the plenaria, it would then have to go to the Pope for the motu proprio to be written. So nothing has been done in irregular fashion.”
He also said that, as far as he knew, Cardinal Sarah was not unhappy with the decision. “I’m not aware of that, and I’m his closest collaborator,” the archbishop said. “If people are saying that, then too much is being read into it.” Cardinal Sarah declined to comment on the matter.
Archbishop Roche also said rumors that the cardinal had turned down the Pope’s request three times, and even offered his resignation over the foot-washing decision, were “totally untrue.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.