Pope Francis has approved the practice of permitting women to have their feet washed, alongside of men, in the Holy Thursday mandatum liturgical ceremony. Francis himself has included women in the foot-washing rite, departing from the Church’s established practice. Now, he has revised the norm to allow for it.
The reason for the previous male-only rule? Some have argued the following: Jesus ceremonially washed the feet of the Twelve — all men — at the Last Supper. Masculinity was a key part of their identity as the Twelve, not a triviality. What’s more, the Twelve were consecrated priests at the Last Supper, at which Jesus instituted both the Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood.
The Twelve’s masculinity was part of their priestly identity, too. Thus, Jesus the High Priest washed the feet of his apostles-priests to show them how to exercise priestly authority as service. Today, those whose feet are washed in the Holy Thursday liturgy represent the priestly Twelve and therefore, so the argument goes, they should be men, as the Twelve were men.
But Pope Francis has changed things. Not, of course, unchangeable Catholic teaching on the masculine nature of priestly ministry, which Francis upholds and insists he cannot alter. No, he has revised what the foot-washing ceremony represents: Rather than a ceremony about the male-only ministerial priesthood, the foot-washing ceremony now represents how all disciples should serve one another based on the example of Jesus. After all, the Twelve were apostles as well as disciples with a special role as members of Jesus’ special “leadership team,” the priesthood.
Some will say the stress on disciples rather than specifically priests has always been the way to see the Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony. The 1955 restoration of the rite as part of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper was, so it is said, understood as representing Jesus’ example of fraternal love, not specifically priestly service. While Jesus did wash the feet of the Twelve, his first priests, at the Last Supper and his action had a priestly, consecratory aspect to it, his example and that of priestly service itself also point to how all followers of Jesus should behave, even those who aren’t priests.
Meanwhile, critics of female foot-washing still maintain the importance of seeing the gift of the ministerial priesthood in the Holy Thursday context, whatever more general value the foot-washing ceremony may also have as an expression of Christian love. The ministerial priesthood, being a specifically masculine reality, should be represented by men.
Which, then, is better to stress in the Holy Thursday liturgy, the ministerial priesthood as service or the common call to service of all Christ’s followers?
There’s a lot to be said for the male-only practice, which is still an option under the new norm. In an age when many Catholics are confused, emphasizing the priestly ministry and its masculine nature can help clarify things. Washing the feet of 12 men underscores an essential element of priesthood. Allowing women to have their feet washed may add to contemporary confusion and give some people the false expectation of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Francis himself seems to acknowledge the latter danger by directing priests to explain the change to people.
Some opponents of the change see a bright side: consistency of law and practice. For years, many Catholics have seen, and perhaps participated in, a Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony featuring both women and men, despite Vatican reminders of the contrary norm. Indeed, some people probably only learned of the previous male-only norm when news broke of the change. Other opponents of change see here only another dark cloud, rather than a silver lining: a reinforcement of the idea that if you don’t like a liturgical norm, just keep breaking it and eventually the Church’s leaders will capitulate. Meanwhile, those who were obedient, often in the face of fierce criticism, may wonder why they bothered.
In any event, despite the official change, for many Catholics, this coming Holy Thursday liturgy’s foot-washing ceremony will be practically the same. Only now the washing of women’s feet will be “legal.” Let’s hope that sound explanations of the change will be forthcoming and further misunderstandings are not. Otherwise, the fraternal love the foot-washing ceremony is supposed to represent may be undermined by another agenda.