Friday, March 13, 2015


The Catholic Liturgy allows but does not require that feet be washed once a year and only on Holy Thursday. It is optional! It is not a sacrament! It is a sacramental! It need not be divisive! It is divisive! Why or why is it so?

Well, it all has to do with a little rubric which indicates that 12 men (vir) are to be chosen. But ever since I can remember, as far back as the 1970's, men and women were chosen, or in some cases only boys, not men, boyS, altar boys at that. So much for following the letter of the law.

Somehow, neo-traditionalists think that the washing of the feet of 12 men reflects the 12 apostles, the first priests/bishops of the Church. If this were so, then it seems to me that the rubric would be that 12 seminarians, or candidates for the priesthood, or priests and bishops themselves, can only be chosen to have their feet washed.

When I was the Master of Ceremonies for the bishop from 1985 to '91, Bishop Raymond Lessard washed only six people's feet and I chose a mix of men and women, boys and girls as I recall.

Why six only? Because for Bishop Lessard it wasn't a literal act of imitating something from way back when in the Scriptures that Jesus did at the Last Supper and only in John's Gospel, but a symbolic act of showing that bishops and priests and deacons must not only serve in the temple in a sacramental way , i.e. offering sacrifice, but they should also live sacrificial lives of service and be not afraid of the "unclean" or becoming "unclean" as the Jewish temples priests were. For the Jewish priests to become unclean meant they couldn't offer sacrifice in the temple, but not so for the bishop or priest.

Choosing six people makes it clear that they are not the 12 apostles, just like the laity at Mass are not the apostles like at the Last Supper! That's what fundamentalism has done to the Church especially when the priest during the Eucharistic Prayer takes literally what he is doing as though it is a reenactment of the Last Supper and just gestures to the congregation as though to the 12 apostles when consecrating the Bread and Wine.

So are we going to be liberal liturgical literalists with the foot washing and only pick 12 men who are suppose to be the apostles? Or are we going to do a liturgical act that points in sign and symbol to something more powerful in the present?  I choose the latter, like Pope Francis has done and will do!


Rood Screen said...

You could just pass out twelve Wet Ones.

Anonymous said...

So, why in this case is the word "men" exclusive? Do we not say that the language of faith and practice is inclsive of both men and women? Seems we need to be consistent with this.

Michael said...

Anonymous at 8:33 AM, "vir," man as in male, is a different word than "homo," man as in member of mankind. There's no inconsistency. :)

northernHERMIT said...

It amazes me that the washing of feet is intended to be a demonstration of humility and service, but here in the USA all the noise comes from people demanding to have their feet washed.An act of humility has been replaced with arrogance, and most of the service is devoted to quieting down those noisemakers.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps, but as I understood, admittedly I have no expertise, the rubric says men. As such it would seem that anything else is inconsistent with the "say the black do the red" meme. My only concern being if a law/rule/procedure is a bad one, it needs to be changed through the proper channels rather than routinely discarded otherwise it breeds contempt for law in general and everyone expects to be treated asthe exception. That being said, feet-washing is something I have never given much thought to.

Rood Screen said...

It's true that "vir" means "man", but "viri" can mean men and women. Since the practice is not a long-established part of the Roman liturgical tradition, and since the rubrics are vague, this is one instance when I think we need to rely upon pastoral discretion.

Gerry Davila said...

Or you could use the traditional 13 men.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Well, actually, getting anyone to have their feet washed on the parish level is like pulling teeth! Most don't want to do it and I don't think I would either!

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

I have no difficulty in my parish finding those who are willing to have their feet washed. I wonder why you do.

Anonymous said...

"If this were so, then it seems to me that the rubric would be that 12 seminarians, or candidates for the priesthood, or priests and bishops themselves, can only be chosen to have their feet washed."

Indeed! If priests or seminarians are present, then ideally they should be chosen. If no clerics are available, then lay men substitute for them, just as lay men substitute in the clerical role of altar servers when clerics are not available.

But, admittedly, since the washing of feet is only a customary sacramental, strict observance is (even, some would say) less importance than in service at the altar of sacrifice.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

The top photo is typical of my parishioner's feet. Who wants to expose these kind of feet to the public let alone this lowly priest?

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

It is an act of charity on the part of my parishioners not to expose this sort of thing to me! Your parishioners, former PI, must not be as charitable as mine!

Anonymous said...

Fr. McD, If I lived in Macon and if I were a member of your parish (two very big "ifs") and read your snide remark about the top photo being "typical of my parishioner's feet" (You have only one parishioner?), I would hie forthwith to Holy Spirit.

A rather crude and insensitive joke, in my opinion.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

A lack of a sense of humor is a terrible thing as well as an inability to detect when one is being faticeos!😁

Anonymous said...

Father--for future reference remember facetious is a word that contains ALL the vowels IN ORDER,

Anonymous said...

Just sayin'...looks a bit like a shot at old people, poor people, neglected people....not good targets for pastoral facetiousness. (I don't think your spell-check is working too well.)

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Spell check did not serve me well in this instance, but rich folks have gilt feet as well!

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Darn auto check! UGLY feet too!

Jacob said...

In traditional parishes ( like the one I attend) there are always 11 men and a teenage boy who represents St John

Anonymous said...

I wince whenever I see a row of men (or women) standing or sitting inside the sanctuary with their backs to the altar.

In my present parish, the 12 men (only) sit to have their feet washed in chairs placed before Mass, 6 behind one another on either side of the main aisle, and the priest comes out of the sanctuary for the foot-washing. (Then on Good Friday 14 women assist at Stations of the Cross.)

John Nolan said...

It's only been included in the Mass since 1955. I am not aware it is a sacramental. Sacramentals have an effect. What effect does this have on those whose feet are washed and are presumably chosen at random? Nor was it necessarily performed by a cleric; Queen Mary Tudor washed the feet of twelve poor women. In convents the Superior washed the feet of the nuns.

Ironic, isn't it? Traddies laying down the liturgical law about something that isn't liturgical in the first place. Pope Francis can wash the paws of twelve dogs if he wants to and I, for one, would be completely unperturbed.

Anonymous said...

John Nolan: "Traddies laying down the liturgical law . . ."

Hmm . . . Evidently you are under the impression that "traddies" wrote the following statements:

“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’ (Matt XX: 28). This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.” CDW, Paschales Solemnitatis (16 ian 1988), n. 51.

“Lotio pedum …11. Viri selecti deducuntur a ministris ad sedilia loco apto parata. Tunc sacerdos … accedit ad singulos, eisque fundit aquam super pedes et abstergit …” (Mass of the Lord's Supper, Roman Missal 2002).

"Therefore, if someone is washing the feet of any females (or, it seems, even of males under 18, per 1983 CIC 97), he is in violation of the Holy Thursday rubrics."

Marie said...

I thought that the washing of feet had something to do with the call to the priesthood?

I agree with Henry saying,"If no clerics are available, then lay men substitute for them, just as lay men substitute in the clerical role of altar servers when clerics are not available."

[In the old days, the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday was done outside of the Mass.}

I also think washing of the feet should be moved to the Chrism Mass with the bishop and all his priests, instead of the Mass of the Lord's Supper of the parish.

My two centavos.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Facetiously - Now that's ALL the vowels.

There's another English word with all the vowels in order. Who knows it? NO GOOGLING!

John Nolan said...

The washing of feet is not connected to the priesthood; nor are those having their feet washed substituting for clerics. I think the confusion arose after Bugnini plonked this ceremony into the middle of the Missa in Cena Domini as part of the misguided 1955 'reform'. Before then the ceremony was performed at a convenient hour after the stripping of the altars.

The ritual is in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum. The prelate may wash the feet of clerics (canonici) but the clear preference was for him to wash the feet of thirteen poor people (pauperes) and give them alms. The Latin is not gender-specific; to make it so one would have to say 'viri pauperes' (poor men) or 'mulieres pauperes' (poor women).

In practice one supposes that poor men would have been chosen, but nowhere is the word 'vir' used. The accusative singular when it appears is simply 'pauperem'.

One should also remember that it was the common practice of European royalty to wash the feet of the poor, a custom which persisted in some places (e.g. Austria-Hungary) into the 20th century. There is a vestige of this in the English 'Royal Maundy' where the Queen distributes symbolic alms in the form of special coins (Maundy money).

So if Pope Francis violates Bugnini's rubrics (in common with many bishops and priests) I'm not that concerned, although I'd rather it were kept out of the sanctuary.

rcg said...

I always feel bad for 'W'; it gets forgotten every time. Of course I mean that, as Barbra Walters might say, "facetiouswy"

Marie said...

John Nolan,
Thank you for your post. You might be correct, but I do remember reading it in Fr. Z's blog that the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday has something to do with the call to the priesthood.

On the other hand, I also remember reading from a Thomas Merton book that in the monastery where he was at, the monks washed the feet of farming folks and press on their palms a silver dollar each.

Thanks. With you explanation, I'm feeling better about the Pope's washing of feet of prisoners. The first time he did that as a new Pope, I was outraged and heartbroken.

Anonymous said...

John Nolan,

Am I correct in the impression that your 9:12 pm 3/13/2015 comment ignores the 1988 instruction Paschales Solemnitatis from the Congregation for Divine Worship (the competent dicastery in this regard), and also the 2002 Missale Romanum rubric (which constitutes liturgical law), which I quoted in my 4:08 pm 3/13/2015 comment, and both of which use the gender-specific Latin term viri selecti ("chosen men")?

That said, I also am not overly concerned when the pope makes a prudential decision to ignore this liturgical law on a particular occasion, in which the exception may well be justified. In any event, he has the power to do this, in at least the sense that canon law provides no means by which he might be called to account.

The mistake is to assume that his prudential exception provides authorization for priests in general to violate the law which remains in full effect.

Anonymous said...


John Nolan is (of course) correct in his reference to the Caeremoniale episcoporum which provides for a bishop washing the feet of thirteen poor people. This occurred (prior to 1955) outside of Mass. As a non-liturgical action, there was nothing wrong with, for instance, an abbess washing the feet of her nuns, or monks washing the feet of poor men and women or children ( or perhaps a lay teacher washing the feet of children in a CCD class).

The current liturgical law which I cite applies only to a foot-washing carried out in the context of Holy Mass (which did not occur prior to 1955). Then (as I understand it) the Caeremoniale episcoporum conditions for extra-liturgical foot washing do not apply, but instead the more specific rubric of the current 2002 Missale Romanum governs the action.

Of course, one can always discuss what exceptions to liturgical law are permissible. I myself see no problem with a pope or any bishop making a prudential decision to ignore this law on a pastoral occasion he deems appropriate. Such prudential decisions seem proper to the role of a pope or bishop.

John Nolan said...

You are quite correct that I am ignoring everything from the 1955 rubrics onwards concerning this ceremony. When it was placed in the context of the Maundy Thursday Mass, which recalls the institution of both the Eucharist and the priesthood, it acquired a (to my mind spurious) liturgical significance not warranted by its long tradition. This reached its apogee in 2003 when JP II in a sermon conflated it with the Eucharist itself.

'Viri selecti' does not convey the sense of 'pauperes' - indeed it conveys quite the opposite, and this is reinforced by the photographs of obviously well-off business-suited men. And although popes traditionally washed the feet of subdeacons they also washed the feet of the poor. To sanitize or clericalize the ceremony and impose on it layers of legal positivism lessens its traditional significance and obscures its meaning. But this is the direct consequence of setting an essentially non-liturgical custom in the context of a liturgical rite.

I'm to some extent playing devil's advocate here, but also making a stand for tradition.

Anonymous said...

Finally, John, with the sentiment of your last comment I am in full agreement. It is the current (and, in my view, unfortunate) post-1955 placement of the foot-washing ceremony in a non-traditional liturgical context--for which, as you say, Bugnini was responsible--that generates the present confusion. (Would that this were the only confusion that the innovations of Bugnini and his crowd had generated.}

Marie said...

Henry and John Nolan,
Thank you both for your explanations. Now I understand.

Have a blessed Laetare Sunday. God bless.

Православный физик said...

It takes a certain arrogance to place oneself above the Liturgical law of the Church. I'm rather sick of hearing justification about *insert abuse here* this time Mandatumgate III

A solution to this so called "problem" could be what my priest friend in Africa does. He selects men for the foot-washing (as called for by the rubrics) but extends the invitation for families to do this outside of the liturgical context after the Liturgy is over, or at their homes.

No, because the Pope places himself above the laws of the Church, does not give an ordinary priest or Bishop that power to ignore the rubrics of the Church.

Arguably the bigger scandal isn't Mandatumgate III, but rather the celebration of the Institution of the Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood outside of the Cathedral Church of the diocese...Almost feel for the Roman people without their Bishop.

I happen to agree, that the foot-washing should be moved to it's pre-55 version of being outside of the Liturgy. Foot-washing, fine, just follow the rubrics of the Church.

Rood Screen said...

Nicely said, Joe Potillor!

Anonymous said...

Isn't this the "straw man" fallacy.