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Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments commented on the Congregation’s new decree concerning the rite of the washing of the feet, which was issued at Pope Francis’s request. Archbishop Arthur Roche traced the history of the foot-washing rite from the seventh century, when a liturgical ordo called upon a bishop to wash the feet of the clerics who lived in his home. In the 12th century, the Roman Pontifical assigned the rite of foot washing to after Vespers on Holy Thursday, with the feet of 12 subdeacons being washed from the thirteenth century in Rome.
The Roman Missal of 1570, Archbishop Roche continued, mentioned that clerics’ feet should be washed but did not specify the number 12; it directed that the hymn Ubi Caritas be chanted during the rite, which concluded with the Lord’s Prayer.
The Ceremonial of Bishops of 1600 stated that after Vespers or at lunch, the bishop was to wash and kiss the feet of 13 poor persons after feeding them. Later, only clerics’ feet were washed, apart from local customs in which the feet of the poor-- or in Paris, of children-- were washed.
With Pope Pius XII’s reform of 1955, the Holy Thursday Mass was celebrated during the evening, and for pastoral reasons, it was permitted for a priest publicly to wash and dry the feet of 12 men (kissing their feet was not mentioned). This was “an imitative sign, like a sacred representation” of Jesus’ actions at Holy Thursday, Archbishop Roche commented.
The Roman Missal of 1970 further changed the rite: the number 12 was omitted, the Ubi Caritas was moved to the procession of the gifts, and the Lord’s Prayer no longer concluded the rite, as its use originated in the days when the rite was celebrated outside Mass. The rubric that viri (men) were to be selected, said Archbishop Roche, had “mimetic (imitative) value.”
The “current change” to the foot-washing rite, which allows for the washing of the feet of selected members from the entire People of God, has changed the significance of the rite, Archbishop Roche continued. “The value now relates not so much to the exterior imitation of what Jesus has done,” and more to as his “gift of self ‘to the end’ for the salvation of mankind, his charity which embraces all” and offers an example.