Foot dragging about foot washing!

We know that one of the sore points between those who want to make minimal changes in the liturgy and those who have sought to embrace Vatican II more fully has been whether they interpreted the missal’s rubric statically – only men can be included in the Holy Thursday foot washing – and those who see it as relating to discipleship and the whole people of God.
It is clear that Pope Francis belongs to the latter group as he showed when he washed the feet of women just three weeks after becoming pope.
Then in Dec 2014 he sent a letter to Cardinal Sarah asking for the rubric to be changed so that it cannot be used to exclude women. However, changing just one word took the dicastery 13 months! So it was only in January this year that the rubric was actually changed. It is now explicit that the pope does not just wish to permit women, but that the action should positively reflect the makeup of each community: men and women, young and old, sick and well, clergy and laity.
Since few know about the change, and Holy Thursday is approaching fast, the editor of The Pastoral Review has specially made an article on this topic available for free.
The article can be read below.
Foot washing on Holy Thursday: new rubric, renewed paradigm

Thomas O’Loughlin

Pope Francis has issued a new rubric to take effect next Holy Thursday – women are to have their feet washed. This article looks at its significance. Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.
Washing the feet of disciples as a way of representing the love and attitude of mutual service that Jesus wanted to animate his community has always been problematic: just look at the reaction of Peter in the gospel (Jn 13.8) and reflect on the fact that this is one of the few times Jesus gives a direct ‘do this’ (Jn 13.14) to the disciples, it had all but disappeared from Christian practice within decades. It was one thing to say one loved a fellow Christian (who happened to be one’s slave), quite another to actually serve him or her by washing their feet!
So strange is the practice that when Pope Francis went to a prison in Rome on 28 March 2013, Holy Thursday, and washed the feet of men and women it was a news story. Alas, for many Catholics the story was not so much about how this was a sign of the divine mercy the Church must manifest to the world but that the Bishop of Rome washed the feet of men and women. Within hours there was a quasi-official statement that this was ‘not a liturgical’ foot washing – one wonders what ‘liturgy’ means in this case – but simply a gesture and therefore it should not be interpreted as a change in the rubrics for the official foot washing in the Mass of the Last Supper, which was interpreted as implying that only male feet were to be washed.1
The ‘problem’ had arisen in the 1990s in the US where a group of rubrical literalists reacted to the natural development of the liturgy for Holy Thursday – many parishes took a representative sample of people for the group whose feet were washed at the Eucharist – and said that ‘viri’ in the rubric meant males and only males could take part. Some canonists pointed out that this was not how law was to be interpreted,2 but the game was afoot. Whether women could be included on Holy Thursday became one of the bones of contention in the liturgical culture war – and it was, and is, a favourite topic on websites of the ‘cannot be too Catholic’ variety. There were four sad consequences of this. First, many bishops weighed in and declared the rubric sacrosanct without recognizing that rubrical evolution is a constant in living liturgy that seeks to speak to ordinary people. Second, faced with controversy in their parishes, many pastors simply dropped the whole event (and it was not that widespread to start with) – so the whole teaching-by-doing that was at the heart of Jesus’ action was lost! Third, where it was done it became a token affair – and this sends out the signal that liturgy is a sham.3 And, lastly, it sent another signal to many women that the Church was a male institution for men.
The new rubric
From the letter Pope Francis sent to Cardinal Sarah on 20 December 2014, it is clear that the Pope had hoped that his example over three years would be sufficient for all other pastors to appreciate that this was an important sign of the unlimited love and mercy to all that we preach – and so that the restrictive interpretation would be consigned to the past.4 However, the continuing quest for rubrical ‘purity’ at the expense of the intended sign that Jesus wished to give in the Upper Room has now led him to ask the Congregation to change, formally, the rubrics – and in addition give guidance on how the new rubric is to be interpreted. The decree (In Missa in Cena Domini) was published on 21 January 2016 and it makes two points directly.5
First, the rubric changes from ‘the men who have been chosen …’ to ‘those chosen from the People of God …’. So now women are permitted.
Second, less this be interpreted as implying you can have women – but you could just carry on not having them (i.e. a restrictive interpretation of a permission) – there is also an explicit statement on what ex populo Dei means in this case. The group chosen for the footwashing should ‘represent the variety and unity of each portion of the People of God. It should be made up of men and women, and if it can be done of a mix of young people and old people, of healthy people and sick people, of clergy, those in the consecrated life, and lay people.’ In other words: the whole range of the baptized should be seen to be involved.
In many parishes this will not be news – they have been doing this for decades – but for some priests it will come as liberation. They have wanted to do this, but felt compelled to follow the rubric when so many in authority were insistent upon it. They no longer need to feel this stress. There will be others, or course, for whom this is one more break with ‘tradition’ and they will no doubt seek to implement it in as minimal a fashion as possible. This minimal engagement with liturgical reform is often given a high-sounding name as ‘the hermeneutic of continuity’ – and it is significant that the clarifying comment in the decree pointing out how ‘from the People of God’ should be interpreted can be seen as a rejection of this so-called ‘hermeneutic of continuity.’ We might all remember that in an historical religion, such as ours, there is always the danger that we forget that the encounter with the divine is not a trip into the past. Our liturgy is not a drama of some ideal past moment, such as the Last Supper, but an event that takes place now and looks forward. Therefore, tradition, as Picasso once remarked, is having a baby, not wearing your grandfather’s hat!
The renewed paradigm
Jesus said that he wanted his action to be a ‘paradigm’ (Jn 13.15 which uses paradigma) for the relationships of love and service that should characterize the relationships between his followers.6 This is something that both the Pope’s letter and the decree emphasize. The decree sees Christ’s action as a vivid portrayal (quasi scaenice demonstrandam) of his humility and love towards the disciples – which we then imitate towards one another. It cites Mt 20.28 that Jesus came to serve rather than be served, that his action was one of brotherly love, unlimited (referencing Jn 13.1), for the salvation of all humanity. Indeed, it is because his love is to the whole human race that men, women, old, young, ill and well, and every other variation should be represented. These are themes that the Pope had already mentioned in his letter: there are no limits in the divine love and this is what the People of God must appreciate and then seek to express towards one another and the world. In short, the footwashing on Holy Thursday evening should be the model, the paradigm, the pattern, the shining example – paradigma, chosen by the evangelist to be placed in the voice of Jesus, is a very strong and embracing word in Greek – for how we act towards one another both within the Church and as the Church within the larger society.
We should note that this view of the footwashing contains within it a different view of this liturgy, and liturgy more widely, than the way this action has been interpreted down the years.7 The accepted interpretation of this liturgical action for a very long time was that it was intended as a modeling of the relationship of the clergy, in this case the parish priest, to the flock. It was a reminder, in an age when clergy were seen as social superiors and part of the governing class – the ordo – that they should be servants and not masters to the rest of the baptized. This was, and indeed is, a valuable lesson, but it sees the footwashing too narrowly from a clerical perspective. Footwashing is not that the master should be seen as a servant – which easily degenerates into simply twisting language so that power hides under a veneer of ‘ministry’ – but that everyone in the community should relate with care and service to everyone else.
‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’ (Jn 13.14).
We are all responsible for one another. We must all be servants of one another. We must all love one another as sisters and brothers. Footwashing catches the kernel of gospel morality.
The other common interpretation of this ritual is that it is part of acting out the Last Supper on Holy Thursday. We see this interpretation when the reason given for why women were excluded from the ritual was that Jesus did it only to the apostles (assumed to be males) – so we have to make it look like ‘back then.’ This is also seen in some places where the presider removes his chasuble and girds himself with a towel imagining that he is imitating Jesus in Jn 13.4. This is a very powerful image and a common view of liturgy in general: so the footwashing at Easter is akin to the nativity play at Christmas! This view ignores the fact that Jesus deliberately set out to wash their feet so that there could be no doubt about how they, in their turn, should behave towards one another. It was not simply a once off that could be acted out in nostalgia for that night: it was an agenda to be embedded in actual future practice.
In pointing to the significance of footwashing among the People of God and in their service to humanity, this decree is showing up the inadequacy of such ways of viewing both this action and the whole liturgy. Liturgy is not play acting, nor is it a tableaux performance of what happened ‘back then’ long ago in Jerusalem, but it is the activity of a People committed to a different vision of human relationship seeking, with God’s help, to begin creating the Kingdom where they are on Holy Thursday evening.8
When we engage in footwashing we are not only fulfilling a gospel command, we are learning in our bodies, in our knees, our hands and our feet, as well as in our minds that we have received love and mercy from God, we must be loving and merciful towards each other, and our actions (not just our words) must show this mercy to all. We all know this (in our heads) and profess it (in words) but when we have to ‘operationalize’ it with water in a basin and confront its awkwardness and feeling of embarrassment and humiliation – then the gospel really bites. We have absorbed something with our whole humanity not just given it notional assent. I love this remark made to me by someone who just had experienced footwashing for the first time, and was clearly shocked by the experience: ‘Jesus had a point in setting this up!’
Further reading
T. O’Loughlin, Washing Feet: Imitating the Example of Jesus in the Liturgy Today, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 2015.
1     Rumsey, P., ‘Women have feet too … ,’
The Pastoral Review 9,5(2013)51-4.
2     Huels, J.M., More Disputed Questions in the Liturgy (Chicago 1996), 25-7.
3     Look at the devastating critique by Adrian Howells, ‘Foot Washing for the Sole,’ Performance Research 17(2012)128-41 (free on the internet).
4     On the Vatican website
5     On the Vatican website – I could only find it in Latin and Italian (accessed 24 January 2016 ).
6     O’Loughlin, T., ‘From a Damp Floor to a New Vision of Church: Footwashing as a Challenge to Liturgy and Discipleship,’ Worship 88(2014)137-50.
7     O’Loughlin, T., ‘The Washing of Feet: The Interplay of Praxis and Theology,’ Anaphora 7(2013)37-46.
8    O’Loughlin, T., ‘Celebrating the New Commandment: Foot-washing and our Theology of Liturgy,’ Scripture in Church 43/169(2013)18-27.

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  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    Chris McDonnell had a useful commentary on this article just before Lent, on this site: “Sharing an intimate act of love”, February 5.

  2. So it took over a year for Cardinal Sarah to implement the change in the rubric, requested by Pope Francis, so that women could not be excluded from the Washing of Feet on Holy Thursday. This is just another example of bureaucratic ‘foot dragging’ by the curia and Vatican officials.
    However, the officials in Rome are behind the times in regard to what is taking place at parish level here. For some years now, women have been included in the Washing of Feet in Holy Week.
    This ‘foot dragging’ is no surprise, Marie Collins a few weeks ago described another episode. Recommendations of the group established to look at the sexual abuse of children by priests, were agreed by a group of Cardinals and approved by Pope Francis. The recommendations have not been acted on due to ‘foot dragging’ by the Vatican officials.
    This is all very disheartening but not surprising.

  3. Padraig McCarthy says:

    There’s a typographical error in the article as printed above. The original Pastoral Review article says: “From the letter Pope Francis sent to Cardinal Sarah on 20 December 2015, it is clear that the Pope had hoped that his example over three years would be sufficient…”
    Since Francis was elected in March 2013, 2015 rather than 2014 must be the correct date, or there would not be three Holy Thursdays.
    Which means that Cardinal Sarah acted amazingly quickly: the decree was signed on 6 January 2016, less than three weeks later! The decree describes this change as an “innovation”.

    1. Mattie Long says:

      It seems the Vatican’s translators again leave a lot to be desired.
      There is confusion about this letter.
      On the Vatican website it is included in the letters of Francis for 2014.
      The Italian version gives a 2014 date and the English one gives 2015!
      Translation, even of numbers, doesn’t seem to be their thing.
      And then the recent comments by Cardinal Sarah on the topic could leave one to despair, but thankfully the vast majority moved on decades since with this rite where it is practised.
      Letter of the Holy Father to the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments regarding the Rite of the “Washing of the Feet” during the Liturgy of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (20 December 2014)
      Al Venerato Fratello
Signor Cardinale Robert Sarah
Prefetto della Congregazione 
per il Culto Divino e la Disciplina dei Sacramenti
      Signor Cardinale,
      come ho avuto modo di dirLe a voce, da qualche tempo sto riflettendo sul Rito della “lavanda dei piedi”, contenuto nella Liturgia della Messa in Coena Domini, nell’intento di migliorarne le modalità di attuazione, affinché esprimano pienamente il significato del gesto compiuto da Gesù nel Cenacolo, il suo donarsi “fino alla fine” per la salvezza del mondo, la sua carità senza confini.
      Dopo attenta ponderazione, sono giunto alla deliberazione di apportare un cambiamento nelle rubriche del Messale Romano. Dispongo pertanto che venga modificata la rubrica secondo la quale le persone prescelte per ricevere la Lavanda dei piedi debbano essere uomini o ragazzi, in modo tale che da ora in poi i Pastori della Chiesa possano scegliere i partecipanti al rito tra tutti i membri del Popolo di Dio. Si raccomandi inoltre che ai prescelti venga fornita un’adeguata spiegazione del significato del rito stesso.
      Grato per il prezioso servizio di codesto Dicastero, assicuro a Lei, Signor Cardinale, al Segretario e a tutti i collaboratori il mio ricordo nella preghiera e, formulando i migliori auguri per il Santo Natale, invio a ciascuno la Benedizione Apostolica.
      Dal Vaticano, 20 dicembre 2014
      To my Venerable Brother
Cardinal Robert Sarah 
Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
      Your Eminence,
      As I had the opportunity to inform you personally, for some time I have been reflecting on the Rite of “The Washing of Feet”, contained in the Liturgy of In Missa in cena Domini, with the aim of improving the procedure, in order to fully express the significance of the gesture Jesus performed in the Upper Room, giving of himself “to the very end” for the salvation of the world, his boundless charity.
      After careful consideration, I have reached the decision to make a change in the rubric of the Roman Missal. Therefore, I order that the rubric according to which the candidates chosen to receive the washing of feet be men or boys be modified in such a way as to enable the Pastors of the Church from now on to choose the candidates for the rite from among all members of the People of God. It is further recommended that those chosen be given an appropriate explanation of the significance of the said rite.
      With gratitude for the invaluable service of this Dicastery, I assure you, Your Eminence, the Secretary and the whole staff of my remembrance in prayer, and as I express my best wishes for Holy Christmas, I impart to each one the Apostolic Blessing.
      From the Vatican, 20 December 2015

  4. I wonder am I alone in thinking that foot washing has little cultural meaning today. Most people have bathrooms, good footwear, do not walk on dusty roads. The whole thing looks embarrassing, perhaps even a cop-out. I wonder are there not more significant ways of performing whatever lesson Jesus intended.

  5. Padraig McCarthy says:

    Mattie @ 5:
    You should have been a detective!
    But the Vatican would claim to view such matters sub specie aeternitatis!

  6. It is funny how some people become sticky about the enforcement of rubrics when it suits them, but ignore them when it doesn’t. I notice now the folks here are looking for rubrics to be obeyed now, based on what they think the rubrics on foot-washing say. This is amusing. The reality is, priests still have the freedom to exclude women or not have the ritual at all. Personally, I would rather the rite be done away with altogether and remain only, if at all, at the Mass of Chrism with the bishop and priests, signifying exactly what the LORD, rather than the Pope, desired it to signify. When the Pope of the day introduces a senseless innovation which opposes Tradition, I’ll stick with the LORD.

    John @ 4: I agree completely. It feels really childish, awkward, and embarrassing. I feel like I am back at primary school. We (boys) used to have to hold hands aged 5 when going outside the school grounds!

  7. Michael C. says:

    7. ” The reality is, priests still have the freedom to exclude women”
    “freedom to exclude”.
    I find this attitude towards women really sad and disturbing. Maybe that’s just me.
    As for knowing exactly what the Lord wished to signify ….
    Could I refer you to Luke’s Gospel and I quote from a comment by Lou Meiman in the praytell blog on this subject;
    “For theological reasons, John sets the crucifixion of Jesus at a different time than the Synoptics, so the supper is not the Seder as in the Synoptics. And if the day of the crucifixion can be adjusted for theology, I would suspect that the guest list at supper could be too.
    Which makes Luke (whose Passion we will read this Sunday) an interesting case. In Luke the apostles are the Twelve, who are chosen from the disciples. The disciples are a much larger group which includes women, whom Luke specifically names. The gospel does not use the words disciple and apostle interchangeably. When Jesus sends Peter and John to prepare, he specifies that he needs a place to eat the Passover with his disciples. Jesus and the Twelve then join that meal. At the end Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives accompanied by his disciples. Luke makes a clear choice to portray the Last Supper as an event shared by more than the Twelve, and most likely including women. This presents some problems for those who want to focus that event solely on ordained ministry.
    On a side note that sheds some light on the history of washing feet in Christianity, I might suggest … cultivate a devotion to St Oswald of Worcester, whom I ran across recently looking to find what saint was unlucky enough to die on February 29. Oswald died in 922, while following his custom of washing the feet of the poor.”
    Have a happy Easter.

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