Choosing the Twelve on Holy Thursday

The drama of Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection comes alive to us through the magnificent Holy Week liturgies.

One unique element, not done at any other time of the year, is the washing of feet on Holy Thursday.

The foot-washing rite calls to mind the episode during the Last Supper, in which Our Lord, knowing full well what was going to happen in the ensuing days, laid aside his garments, girded himself with a towel and washed his apostles’ feet. By example, he taught them how they were to exercise leadership in his Church — through humble service.

In the same way, the Holy Thursday rite provides that after the homily the priest, in imitation of Christ, washes the feet of men chosen from the congregation. When done orderly and reverently, this can be a particularly moving ritual, inspiring us to enter more deeply into the sacred liturgy.

Unfortunately, in too many Holy Thursday celebrations, foot washing has become a countersign, pointing to rivalry and power, not unity and service. This happens whenever the attention is taken away from the significance of Christ’s actions and is instead focused on who is (and isn’t) getting their feet washed.

It must be candidly admitted that Church authorities have opened the door to controversy through the mixed signals that have been given to the faithful and pastors alike. The rite itself has always specified that only men are to have their feet washed. The word used in Latin is viri (men), not homines, which legitimately includes men and women. Because of ongoing debate on this issue, the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, in a 1988 circular letter entitled Paschales Solemnitatis, affirmed that the tradition of washing the feet of “chosen men” should be retained.

Then in 1996, the U.S. bishops proposed a modification that would allow for the washing of women’s and children’s feet during the Holy Thursday service. This proposal received the necessary support of more than two-thirds of the U.S. bishops, but it still required the formal approval of the Holy See before it could take effect. Such approval has never been given. Meanwhile, the CDWDS published in 2002 the official third edition of the Roman Missal, which still provides that only men are to have their feet washed.

Not surprisingly, it’s impossible to please everyone, given this ambiguity. In parishes where only men have their feet washed, some complain about the lack of inclusivity and the failure to implement a “directive” of the U.S. bishops. In parishes where women and children have their feet washed, some complain about the illicit practice, which seems to accommodate dissenting elements in the Church.

There are two distinct theologies at work that facilitate this tension: The more traditional theology focuses on the vocation of the priest to serve God’s people in humility. The priest acts in the role of Jesus, while the 12 men serve in the role of the apostles. The priest’s ministry is ordered to serving the laity (see Catechism, No. 1547), and this rite reminds him of his call to serve the flock entrusted to him. The other theology is based on the truth that all the faithful participate in the threefold mission of Christ as priest, prophet and king.

This kingship is exercised through our conquering the kingdom of sin and also through our loving acts of service and mercy. This latter theology carries the day in most U.S dioceses, where all the faithful — men and women — are allowed to participate in the foot-washing rite. But there’s another principle at work here.

There has been in the Church in recent decades a relentless push toward opening roles and functions to the broadest number of people. In some contexts, this approach has fostered a greater participation in the life of the Church, based on our baptismal dignity. 

However, it has also given momentum to dissident agendas, as represented by groups such as Call to Action and Voice of the Faithful. Now, having one’s feet washed in the strictest sense does not require “maleness.” This function more closely resembles service as a reader or extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

It is not an instance like preaching a homily or, even more, consecrating the Eucharist, where the necessity of holy orders results in the function being closed to women.

To all this, I’d gently offer a two-pronged response:

First, I’d urge that all Catholic dioceses and parishes follow the rubrics as they presently exist, and thereby not permit the washing of women’s feet on Holy Thursday. The point of the recent Vatican instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum was precisely to foster a joyful adherence to liturgical norms. Even if the washing of women’s feet might be permitted someday, we do well not to impose our own preferences or agendas on the liturgy in the meantime.

Second, while it’s theoretically possible for the Church to allow women to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday, it’s far from clear that it’s fitting to do so. Function is not the same as sign value, as the latter is based on what things are, not what they do. Let me explain: Holy Thursday, in a singularly preeminent way, celebrates the institution of the ordained priesthood and the Eucharist, which, as Pope John Paul II emphasizes, are inseparably related. It’s neither a historical accident nor sex discrimination that the apostles happened to be men. 

It’s also no coincidence that the apostles’ successors have only chosen men to lay down their lives for the Church, the Bride of Christ, as ordained ministers. Given all the special considerations before us during this Year of the Eucharist — the decline in Eucharistic belief, the shortage of priests in many places, the need for a renewed understanding and appreciation of the priesthood in light of recent scandals, and a generalized confusion when it comes to gender roles — it doesn’t seem like a good idea to downplay the rite’s specific, historical context.

Further, the sign value of choosing a representative cross-section of the parish community — including women and children — could easily be misinterpreted as indicating that the Church is now more democratic than apostolic. Foot washing is about rites, not rights. The rite is not about whose feet get to be washed, but about the priest’s call to exercise authority in imitation of his divine master, who came not to be served, but to serve.

Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is

president of Catholics United

for the Faith and Emmaus Road

Publishing and publisher

of Lay Witness magazine.