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Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday

And More on Days of Abstinence

ROME, MARCH 29, 2006 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I understand that it is in fact liturgically incorrect to have the main celebrant at the Holy Thursday Mass wash the feet of women. Correct? -- J.C., Ballina, Ireland. During the Holy Thursday liturgy at our parish, there are a number of foot-washing stations set up around the Church, and the people in the pews get up and bring someone else to one of the stations and wash their feet. Most of the people in Church take part in this, washing feet and in turn having their feet washed. It takes quite a while. Is this liturgically correct? Are there any norms for foot-washing during the Holy Thursday Mass? -- B.S., Naperville, Illinois. On Holy Thursday, at the washing of feet, the people, mostly youth, after having their foot washed, preceded to wash the next person's foot. Then they placed four bowls of water and four places before the altar, and the congregation was told to come forward and have their hands washed by the same people who just had their foot washed. We didn't. Everything felt out of order. -- E.K., Freehold, New Jersey

There has been no change in the universal norm which reserves this rite to men as stated in the circular letter "Paschales Solemnitatis" (Jan. 16, 1988) and the rubrics of the 2002 Latin Roman Missal.

No. 51 of the circular letter states: "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."

About a year ago, however, the Holy See, while affirming that the men-only rule remains the norm, did permit a U.S. bishop to also wash women's feet if he considered it pastorally necessary in specific cases. This permission was for a particular case and from a strictly legal point of view has no value outside the diocese in question.

I believe that the best option, as "Paschales Solemnitatis" states, is to maintain the tradition and explain its proper significance.

This means preparing the rite following liturgical law to the letter, explain its meaning as an evocation of Christ's gesture of service and charity to his apostles, and avoid getting embroiled in controversies that try to attribute to the rite meanings it was never meant to have.

Regarding the place and number of those whose feet are to be washed, the rubric, which has remained unvaried in the new missal, describes the rite as follows:

"Depending on pastoral circumstances, the washing of feet may follow the homily.

"The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers he pours water over each one's feet and dries them."

The number of men selected for the rite is not fixed. Twelve is the most common option but they may be fewer in order to adjust to the available space.

Likewise the place chosen is usually within or near the presbytery so that the rite is clearly visible to the assembly.

Thus, the logical sense of the rubric requires the priest, representing Christ, washing feet of a group of men taken from the assembly, symbolizing the apostles, in a clearly visible area.

The variations described above -- of washing the feet of the entire congregation, of people washing each other's feet (or hands), or doing so in situations that are not visible to all -- tend to undermine the sense of this rite within the concrete context of the Mass of the Lord's Supper.

Such practices, by greatly extending the time required, tend to convert a meaningful, but optional, rite into the focal point of the celebration. And that detracts attention from the commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, the principal motive of the celebration.

In other circumstances, such as retreats or so called para-liturgical services, it can be perfectly legitimate to perform foot-washing rites inspired by Christ's example and by the liturgy. In such cases none of the limitations imposed by the concrete liturgical context of the Holy Thursday Mass need apply.

* * *

Follow-up: Why No Chicken on Days of Abstinence

Some people have inquired as to the use of derivatives such as chicken broth and the use of beef and chicken stock and animal fats in preparing foods.

Present canon law allows the use of sauces made from animal fats, as well as their use in cooking, so the use of beef or chicken stock would enter into this category.

While the use of chicken consommé (that is just the liquid) might fall within the ...

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1 - 5 of 5 Comments

  1. GJA Taylor
    1 year ago

    When clergy desire new things , be aware that they are probably in a state of sin. As the ego always desires new things.
    Get on with the Sacred Liturgy and stop with all - everything has to be new non-sense. Do nothing that distracts from the Sacred Liturgy. It isn't about the priest, he is to become less and Christ is to increase. So any deviation is a mark of ego, distrust the ego of a clergyman. It is a sure sign that they have lost sight of Our Lord's Passion and are more interested in making a fuss and drawing attention to themselves. Not good at all. Let them learn humility and carry out their priestly function without drawing attention to themselves and without the fuss of cameras filming their "humility".

  2. Denis Daniel
    3 years ago

    Can a Catholic parish priest without any valid reason delegate his liturgical duty of washing of feet to a Catholic priest who does not belong to the same diocese? What does Canon law say?

  3. Mary Anne
    3 years ago

    According to the thinking that the washing of the feet should theatrically create an image of the Twelve as its primary intent, and not the terms of service as Jesus instructed, gives us historic pictures with no challenge to The Way. If the events of the Last Supper only pertained to the Twelve men, women would not be part of the Eucharist. Jesus came for all the world. Our response should come from the heart of His teachings, not the cultural climate of his time in history. He was a radical man who challenged the times. The first person to hear the Good News of His Resurrection was Mary, a woman. Should it follow that only a woman should read the first Gospel of Easter morning? I have had my feet washed. I am a woman. It was beautiful and moving and I respond with service to others.
    I fear for the church when it puts theatrics, cult like chants, smoke and bells, as first priority over the heart of Jesus's teachings. It's fine to have these things if they are secondary and enhance the gift of Faith, God has given us. Trust in Faith, and focus on the Way.

  4. Dan
    5 years ago

    With all due respect, I think the point is missed. The master and the servant are one in the social order therefore all lay people should be included if heaven on earth is part of your goals. peace.

  5. Lisa
    6 years ago

    "There has been no change in the universal norm which reserves this rite to men as stated in the circular letter "Paschales Solemnitatis" (Jan. 16, 1988) and the rubrics of the 2002 Latin Roman Missal. "

    I researched this a little farther and found that the GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) says nothing about the washing of feet on Holy Thursday, let alone it being reserved for men. And the letter does not say it is specifically reserved for men and that women should not get their feet washed...

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