This morning, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a decree with authority from Pope Francis to amend the liturgy for the Holy Thursday liturgy. The rite for Mass on that day contains an option for the “washing of feet.” Until this morning, it was required that only males be chosen as the entire rite was meant to be a presentation of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles at the Last Supper which is described in the gospel read on that night. With the new decree, not only can women have their feet washed, but the explanations indicate a preference for creating a group representing a cross-section of the parish.
As sometimes happens, I go into some discussions regarding this on Facebook. Without much editing, I am copying some of my comments from that forum to this site so as to make them more accessible.
Things began with the following comment from a priest:
For me, this action has always been about the priest exercising his ministry as servant, particularly to the people to whom he has been entrusted, rather than a re-enactment of the Last Supper. I always hated the implication that the priest is only there to serve the men.
My replies to various postings follow:
No one at Mass on Holy Thursday actually needs their feet washed. The priest isn’t actually serving anyone. It’s symbolic. The question is, “What does it symbolize?” The modern addition of a foot washing ceremony to the Holy Thursday liturgy has created something completely of it’s own making whose meaning is only found in what the community thinks it means.
As such, we now have a ceremony that has come to symbolize the willingness of the priest to serve his people. Such an understanding almost necessitates that women’s feet be washed. But we also have to see that this has almost nothing to do with what was intended by adding this to the liturgy in the first place. I think what is more likely is that this ceremony will in time disappear from the Holy Thursday liturgy. It was an innovation when it was added in 1950’s and the very fact that we don’t even know what it means would indicate that its staying power is probably limited.
In the end, priests that were already disobeying the law will continue to wash women’s feet as they always have. Priests who followed the law probably did so because they also understood what the whole thing was supposed to be about in the first place. They will likely not take the option to wash women’s feet and will continue with only men’s feet. Over time, more and more will take the option of not doing it at all. As a liturgical rite, I think it’s a product of a time that is quickly fading.
My personal feeling is that the footwashing is becoming too much like an event or show to be watched rather than a sacred action intended to be prayed over. The actions of the liturgy are ritual symbolic actions, not mere spectacle. So again, the question is “What does the footwashing symbolize?”
As I said, the answer has come to be that it symbolizes the desire of the priest to serve his people after the example provided by Jesus. Consider though that a symbol represents something; it stands in for something not evident or present so as to make it present through use of the symbol. We don’t really need to “symbolize” the desire of a priest to serve his people on Holy Thursday when he is in fact at that very moment serving them in concrete reality. Celebrating the Eucharist and feeding his flock with the Bread of Life is the greatest service that a priest could ever provide for his people. No symbol of this is necessary when the reality is right there.
If the footwashing is meant to visibly present what is read in the Gospel, namely Jesus washing the feet of the 12 apostles, then symbolism is necessary as neither Jesus nor the twelve apostles are present in physical reality. They must be symbolized. Neither the priest, nor his desire to serve need to be symbolized. They are both there in concrete reality.
On a pragmatic level, consider the new potential for conflict created for the average parish priest. Under the old law, you picked 12 men. There wasn’t too much arguing about why people were chosen. They were chosen to represent the apostles, nothing more. The great criteria that made you worthy of being chosen was that you were born male.
With the old law, people were chosen to represent an apostle. In the new law, people are to be chosen as an honor for some function they perform in the parish or to represent an important group in the parish. The desire seems to be to create a “cross-section” of the parish.
Immediately we have questions such as, “Why was he/she chosen and not me or this other person?” “Why was the sandwich making ministry honored with a footwashing spot but not the blanket making ministry?” “Why did the Legion of Mary have a representative foot to be washed, but not the Daughters of Isabella?”
Even if all goes well without any bickering or hard feelings, there is still a major shift with the new law. Under the old law, the whole point was to use a visible symbol, 12 men, to help take our thoughts to the Upper Room. They served as an aide to meditation in which we were perhaps more easily supposed to picture Jesus at the Last Supper washing the feet of his apostles. The footwashing served as a sort of living stained glass window. Under the new law, the action in front of us not only doesn’t as easily remind us of the Upper Room, it deliberately distracts our attention from the transcendent to focus on the here and now.
As a symbol points to a reality beyond itself, one could say that the best symbol is one in which the symbol itself falls to the background as the reality signified becomes more and more present. In the use of 12 men for the rite, the ideal would be that we would totally lose sight of who was having their feet washed and who was doing it. We would be drawn in meditation beyond what was in front of us to think only of Jesus and the apostles in the Upper Room. Naturally, a desire to serve after the example of our Lord would flow from such meditation.
The innovation of creating a representative group of the parish for the priest to minister to as some act of service no longer functions as an effective sign of what was originally intended. Rather than the people themselves fading into the background in service of some transcendent reality, now the choice of the people becomes an integral part of the rite. We are no longer to see Jesus washing feet; we are meant to focus all the more on the person of the priest and precisely who’s foot is being washed. It is “my” pastor washing “my” feet or some other representative foot.
The decree issued today, as well as the original one of Pius XII in the 1950’s indicate that it is important for priests to explain the meaning of the footwashing rite to the faithful. I would simply note that the new legislation lends itself to a meaning that is very different from what was originally intended. Obviously, Pope Francis prefers this meaning. The footwashing is now to be a small token of service in the here and now. If it symbolizes anything, it symbolizes not Jesus and the apostles, but a relationship between the priest and the one having his or her foot washed. Rather than the transcendent, the here and now is the focus.
My own personal opinion is that there is far too much focus in the celebration of the Mass these days on the relationship between the priest and the people assembled. I rather prefer that the priest’s own personality fade into the background during Mass so that the people may more easily see him as standing in the person of Christ. The priest is to be, at least in part, a symbol at Mass that points people to Jesus. As I said above, the best symbols fade to the background in favor of what they signify. Like John the Baptist, we priests should desire to decrease that Jesus may increase. In my mind, the old law for the footwashing, requiring men representing the apostles and the priest representing Jesus, had better potential to accomplish this; the new rite, not so much.
I should be clear that the above comments only regard the footwashing rite as it has been introduced into the liturgy. The idea of a ritual of symbolic service of footwashing outside the context of the Eucharist is an entirely different matter. There may well be a place for a free use of the gesture of footwashing outside the celebration of Mass. Time will tell. Regardless, one thing that I am very grateful for is that the legal matter is finally settled. It might not be prudent, but is certainly no longer illegal to wash women’s feet on Holy Thursday. At the very least, we no longer have to debate this every Holy Week, and for that I am most grateful.