How Should We Understand Pope Francis Washing Women's Feet?

The future Pope Francis washes the feet of a unidentified woman on Holy Thursday at the Buenos Aires' Sarda maternity hospital on March 24, 2005.
The future Pope Francis washes the feet of a unidentified woman on Holy Thursday at the Buenos Aires' Sarda maternity hospital on March 24, 2005. (photo: Register Files)

It has been widely reported that, when he was still the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, the future Pope Francis washed the feet of women during the Mass of the Lord's Supper.

Now he has done so as pope.

Here are some thoughts on Pope Francis's decision and what it means.


This Year's Mass of the Lord's Supper

It was surprising but not surprising when the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had chosen to celebrate this year's Mass of the Lord's Supper not in one of the papal basilicas of Rome but, instead, in its juvenile prison.

That's precisely the kind of gesture that we have come to expect from the new pope in the short time we've been getting to know him.

It's not traditional, but it's humble and evangelistic.

And it corresponds to Jesus' remarks that, when we visit those in prison, we are spiritually visiting him (Matthew 25:36-40).

It's also in keeping with things he's done before, such as holding the service in a maternity hospital in Buenos Aires in 2005.

So what happened with the footwashing ceremony this year?

The BBC is reporting:

During Thursday's intimate service, the Pope washed and kissed the feet of 12 young detainees to replicate the Bible's account of Jesus Christ's gesture of humility towards his 12 apostles on the night before he was crucified.

The 12 inmates included two girls, one Italian Catholic and one of Serbian Muslim origin, local prison ombudsman Angiolo Marroni said ahead of the ceremony.

That's certainly a dramatic gesture.


A Muslim Girl?

It had been announced, in advance, that the young people who were going to be participating in the ceremony would be coming from different religious backgrounds, so this wasn't a total surprise, but it was a striking choice.

What should we make of it?

I think we should understand it in the same light that explains the initial decision to celebrate this Mass in a youth prison: Pope Francis wants to reach out to the young people in the prison and bring them the light of Christ.

He is taking the role of a servant and an evangelist.

What he is doing hopefully will have a profound impact on the lives of these young people, hopefully setting them on the right path both in terms of civil law and in terms of their faith life.

He's also, by this action, showing the world that he takes his role seriously as a servant of all people and an evangelist to all people.

Washing and kissing the feet of a Muslim girl in jail signifies that rather dramatically.

It also raises questions.



Here are a few:

  1. What do the Church's liturgical documents say about footwashing?
  2. How does Pope Francis's decision relate to this?
  3. If the pope is going beyond what the Roman Missal says, can the pope just do that?
  4. If he can do it, can others?
  5. What should we expect in the future?
  6. How should we understand the rite in light of this?

Let's look at each of these . . .


1. What do the Church's liturgical documents say about footwashing?

There are two key places one should look for an understanding of the footwashing ceremony. The first is found in the document that governs the celebrations connected with Easter, which is called Paschales Solemnitatis. According to this document:

51. The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came "not to be served, but to serve." This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.

Please take note of the highlighted phrase. It will be important later.

The second document is the Roman Missal, which states:

10. After the Homily, where a pastoral reason suggests it, the Washing of Feet follows.

The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place. Then the Priest (removing the chasuble if necessary) goes to each one, and, with the help of the ministers, pours water over each one's feet and then dries them.

Meanwhile some of the following antiphons or other appropriate chants are sung.

[Antiphons omitted]

13. After the Washing of Feet, the Priest washes and dries his hands, puts the chasuble back on, and returns to the chair, and from there he directs the Universal Prayer.

The Creed is not said.

There are several things to note here:

  1. The text does speak of "men" having their feet washed. The Latin term that is used in the original (viri) indicates adult males specifically.
  2. This rite is optional; it is done "where a pastoral reason suggests it."
  3. There is no specific number of men specified. It does not say twelve men are to have their feet washed. How many is a decision open to the celebrating priest.
  4. Although I have omitted the antiphons for reasons of space, none of them speak of the "apostles." They either use the more generic term "disciples" or they do not mention the disciples at all but rather Jesus' example for us or his commandment to love one another.


2. How does Pope Francis's decision relate to this?

Pope Francis's decision goes beyond what is provided in these texts in at least one respect: Instead of washing the feet of adult males, he decided to wash the feet of young women as well.

The fact that one of them was a Muslim does not go beyond what the letter of the text specifies, since it does not indicate that the chosen men are to be Catholics (or other Christians).

One would expect that they would be Catholics, and one could argue that this is implied in the text, but since Pope Francis is now the individual who is ultimately responsible for interpreting the text, if he judges that it does not prevent washing the feet of non-Christians then it doesn't.

His decision does go beyond the text in the matter of men, however.


3. Can Pope Francis just do things that aren't provided for in the law?

Yes. The pope does not need anybody's permission to make exceptions to how ecclesiastical law relates to him. He is canon law's ultimate legislator, interpreter, and executor.

And it's not uncommon, at least in recent decades, for a pope to make exceptions to the law in how papal ceremonies are performed.

John Paul II frequently held liturgies that departed from what the Church's liturgical texts provide, particularly when he was making a form of dramatic outreach, and Pope Francis seems to be following in his footsteps.


4. If he can do this, can others?

Technically speaking, no. If a pope judges that, due to the particular circumstances of a papal celebration, an exception should be made, that does not create a legal precedent allowing others to do so.

After all, not everybody is in the same situation as the pope. They don't have the same pastoral circumstances or the same legal authority, and so if he makes an exception in his application of the law in his own case, it does not create a legal precedent for others doing so who do not have his circumstances or authority.

On the other hand, if people see the pope doing something, they are naturally going to treat it as an example to be followed.

People naturally imitate their leader. That's the whole point behind Jesus washing the disciples' feet. He was explicitly and intentionally setting an example for them.

Pope Francis knows that he is setting an example.

It has been reported, e.g., that when he was told that he didn't need to pay his pre-conclave hotel bill that he insisted on doing so, saying expressly that, as the pope, he needed to set an example.


5. What should we expect in the future?

It's hard to say.

On a practical level, I would expect that there will be more priests who do things similar to what the pope has done.

On a legal level, the matter is more uncertain.

We may get a clarification of the matter, perhaps from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

I suspect that, if we do get a clarification, it is likely to be one allowing more flexibility in terms of who has their feet washed.

Already, the Congregation for Divine Worship has, apparently, indicated privately that a bishop can wash women's feet if he feels a pastoral exception should be made. At least, that's what Cardinal O'Malley indicated he was told when he asked them about the subject (see here for more info).

We'll have to see, though. They may not say anything.


6. How should we understand the rite in light of Pope Francis's action?

There has been a tendency in some circles to see the footwashing rite as linked specifically to the twelve apostles, and this has been presented as a reason why it should be limited to men.

In the past, I myself promoted that understanding, because that is how it was first explained to me.

It's a natural understanding, particularly when twelve individuals are chosen to have their feet washed, and in an age when altar girls and women's ordination have been receiving attention.

However, as I've looked more closely at the texts, other elements have struck me:

  • First, as we mentioned, the number twelve is not mandated in the text. The number is the choice of the celebrating priest. That, right there, loosens the connection of the rite with the apostles.
  • Second, this event is recorded only in John's Gospel, and John does not describe Jesus as washing the feet of "the apostles." Instead, John says that he washed the feet of "his disciples." Disciples is a more generic term than apostles. Although they are sometimes used synonymously, Jesus had many more disciples than he did apostles.
  • Third, none of the antiphons sung during this rite (which might give clues to its meaning) speak of the "apostles." They either use the more generic term "disciples" or they do not mention the disciples at all but rather Jesus' example for us and his commandment to love one another. 
  • Fourth, none of the explanatory texts for this rite explain it in terms of an action directed specifically to the apostles.


The most direct explanation of the rite's purpose is found in Paschales Solemnitatis, which says:

51. The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came "not to be served, but to serve." This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.

This indicates that we should understand that this rite "represents the service and charity of Christ"--not as a statement about ordination to the priesthood. To read it that way goes beyond what the texts indicate.

According to the texts, our focus should be on the service and charity displayed in the rite and how we should serve and be charitable to one another.

The rite should not be read in the matrix of issues like women's ordination. This rite isn't about ordination, the way the Church understands it.

At least that's how Pope Francis seems to understand it.


A Final Thought

I'd add one more thing, which is that it's understandable that we might be perplexed or concerned about this.

After all, we do live in an age in which authentic Catholic teaching involving gender is under assault. The last few years have seen a lot of flashpoints involving the idea of women's ordination.

It's understandable that issues like altar servers and footwashing would be viewed in that matrix.

At the same time, we should keep this in perspective.

The footwashing ceremony is only an optional rite, and it was only made part of this Mass in 1955 by Pope Pius XII, so it's modern liturgical use doesn't even go back that far.

The question of who serves at altar is far more closely connected to who is likely to think about becoming a priest than the question of who has their feet washed on Holy Thursday.

If the Holy See were to decide to expand how the law is to be applied in this case, it would not signal the end of the world.

If the Church can survive altar girls, it can certainly survive a change in the discipline regarding who has their feet washed.

More from Dr. Edward Peters.

And Fr. Longenecker.

And Fr. Z.



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