– Vol. III, No. 1: March 1997
Paths to Rome: Washing of feet on Holy Thursday
"For I have given you an example, that you also should do"
By Father Jerry Pokorsky
ON HOLY THURSDAY, in parishes throughout the United States, twelve men and women will assemble in the sanctuaries during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to have their feet ritually washed by a priest. Although many Catholics — both men and women — are disburbed by the practice of washing women’s feet, probably most barely take notice.
Almost no one will be aware that, despite documents approving the practice from the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), there is no clear evidence that the Vatican has confirmed the practice of ritually washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday. Actually, there is only evidence to the contrary.
The sacred events of Holy Thursday represent the Lord’s institution of the Sacraments of the Blessed Eucharist and Holy Orders. As disciples of the Lord, we are all invited to imitate His example in humble service to one another as we prepare to receive the Eucharist at Mass. The ritual washing of the feet was restored by Pope Pius XII in 1955. This ritual symbolically fulfills the command of Jesus at the Last Supper:
When He had washed their feet, and taken His garments, and resumed His place, He said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13:12-15).
The Protracted Controversy
About ten years ago, Bishop Anthony Bevilacqua, then bishop of Pittsburgh, reminded his priests that the Sacramentary (the official book of prayers for celebration of Mass) calls for the selection of men for the Holy Thursday washing of feet. He pointed out that the Latin word for man (meaning male), vir, was used in the Latin original.
The liturgical instructions, or rubrics, of the Sacramentary were to be followed faithfully: "The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest … goes to each man. With the help of ministers, he pours water over each one’s feet and dries them" (Sacramentary, p. 136).
Bishop Bevilacqua’s instructions to his priests drew the attention of the national Catholic media. The Bishops’ Liturgy Committee soon responded to "a number of inquiries from bishops, diocesan liturgical commissions, and offices of worship".
The liturgy committee issued the following statement on February 16, 1987:
… it has become customary in many places [in the United States] to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the church and to the world … in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service.
While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary, which mentions only men (vir selecti), it may nevertheless be said that the intention to emphasize service along with charity in the celebration of the rite is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, "who came to serve and not to be served", that all members of the church must serve one another in love. [Emphasis added. BCL Newsletter, February 1987, Volume XXIII)]
This response of the BCL raises troublesome questions. By admitting that the ritual washing of women’s feet "differ[s] from the rubric of the Sacramentary", the liturgy committee implicitly acknowledged authority of the Sacramentary, and the extent to which variations, if any, were permissible. But was the committee’s interpretation of this rubric (direction) authoritative? Did the committee sanction a liturgical abuse?
The Limits of BCL Authority
The fathers of the Second Vatican Council clearly stated that "…no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, change anything in the liturgy on his own authority" [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 23].
Furthermore, according to Church law the Vatican must confirm liturgical legislation approved by the various national conferences of bishops. It is "the prerogative of the Apostolic See to regulate the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, to publish liturgical books and review their vernacular translations, and to be watchful that liturgical regulations are everywhere faithfully observed" [Canon 838.2].
The translations of liturgical books from the official Latin into English (which includes the rubrics for Mass), must also be confirmed by the Apostolic See:
It pertains to Episcopal Conferences to prepare translations of liturgical books, with appropriate adaptations as allowed by the books themselves and, with the prior review of the Holy See, to publish these translations [Canon 838.3].
From these canons, it would seem that individual bishops, even a committee of bishops, do not have the authority to change the liturgical texts. On the contrary, bishops have the serious responsibility "to be watchful lest abuses creep into ecclesiastical discipline, especially concerning the ministry of the word, the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals, the worship of God and devotion to the saints…" [Canon 392.2].
News reports at the time stated that the liturgy committee would wait for the Vatican to clarify the issue. The Holy See was reported to be revising the Holy Week ceremonies, including the ritual of the washing of feet on Holy Thursday. This was in fact the case. But when the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship released the Holy Week instruction the following year, the rubric was not changed. It is impossible that Vatican officials were unaware of the dispute. Despite the controversy in America, the Vatican held fast to the tradition of the Church.
The Vatican Instruction on Footwashing
The Vatican made no changes in the rubrics referring to "men"; indeed, the new instruction said that the "tradition should be maintained":
The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day [Holy Thursday], 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. (Congregation for Divine Worship, "Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts," January 16, 1988.)
In this instruction, the Congregation for Divine Worship used much the same language as the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy’s statement a year before. This seems to suggest that the liturgy committee’s arguments were heard in Rome, but not accepted.
Compliance with liturgical norms was a frequent theme of Pope John Paul II in 1988. Time and again, he reminded bishops of their duty to guard against liturgical abuse.
In a 1988 address to the bishops of Northwestern Germany, the pope said,
Take care, nevertheless, that the norms of the liturgical renewal be everywhere observed; otherwise, regrettable misunderstandings easily arise. Many people accuse the Church and liturgical renewal of that which in reality is not the intention of the Church but rather goes back to individuals who act arbitrarily" (L’Osservatore Romano, February 22, 1988).
And in October 1988, the pope warned the bishops of Puerto Rico,
…as bishops, you have a well-defined responsibility in the liturgical area…. Therefore, you will have to take care that the established norms are respected, above all in the Eucharistic celebrations, which should never depend on the whim or the special initiatives of individuals or groups who disassociate themselves from the directives given by the Church…. (L’Osservatore Romano, October 27, 1988).
But the BCL Newsletter did not report explicitly the Vatican’s guidelines, nor clarify its own flawed instruction of 1987. Instead, the Newsletter advised readers,
For the most part the [Vatican] letter repeats the instructions of the various liturgical documents and books [for] the celebration of Lent, Holy Week, the Easter Triduum and Easter…. The letter serves as a reminder of the structure and content of the celebrations. Those responsible for the planning and celebration of Easter mysteries should review the texts of the various rites with a copy of the circular letter in hand.
Without the active cooperation and intervention of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, the exhortations of the pope, if heard at all, would be disregarded.
Rights of the Faithful and Duties of Bishops
After all the negative publicity following Bishop Bevilacqua’s decision, and lacking the cooperation of the liturgical establishment, the actual rubrics for the footwashing ritual were seldom, if ever, enforced by individual bishops.
They may have been reluctant to risk offending women by refusing them this gesture of service. Already the Church was being severely criticized by feminists for not ordaining women. Public opinion seemed lined up squarely against them. And what harm could come from washing a few women’s feet?
Pope John Paul II, however, made it clear that the celebration of the Liturgy cannot be ruled by public opinion:
The faithful have a right to a true Liturgy, which means the Liturgy desired and laid down by the Church… (Inaestimabile donum, April 3, 1980).
And what of the Vatican’s 1988 directive on the footwashing ritual, "This tradition [the washing of the Apostles’ feet] should be maintained, and its proper significance explained". Shouldn’t this be observed?
The Significance of the Ritual
The "proper significance" of the ritual surely depends upon fidelity to what has been received. Like scriptural texts, liturgical actions (as well as liturgical texts) are multivalent: such is their richness and depth that they convey different levels of meaning simultaneously.
The symbolism of the ritual representation of the Lord’s washing the feet of His Apostles is an example of this. Even Peter did not at first understand Christ’s explanation, "What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand":
Peter said to Him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me." Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you." For He knew who was to betray Him; that was why He said, "You are not all clean." (John 13:7-11)
Particularly in the context of the Holy Thursday liturgy, the ritual of washing the feet of men suggests the strong connection between Christ’s washing His Apostles feet and the institution of the Eucharist and Holy Orders. That the Vatican did not the accept the American interpretation of this ritual suggests that there are important theological reasons for the customary practice.
If the washing of feet were only symbolic of charity and service, why did Jesus not wash the feet of the sick, or the hungry, or the lepers, or His friends in the house of Lazarus, or at the feeding of the five thousand? The Lord might have have found other occasions to give a lesson in charity and service in the presence of all His disciples, both men and women. But He did not.
Christ chose an occasion which was not open to all His followers, but only to those twelve men He had chosen and called as Apostles. We must conclude, then, that the ritual is intimately connected to the priesthood and the institution of the Eucharist. Its symbolism cannot be reduced to a general theme of service to the whole Church.
The Lord’s example is given to those who would serve the people of God in His name, calling them to humility and self-abnegation in their priestly ministry. Hence, the ceremonial recalling of this act is liturgically related to the whole mystery of Holy Thursday — to the priesthood and the Eucharist. To include women confuses this focus and obscures the theological meaning of these solemn acts.
During the June 1996 plenary meeting of bishops, the long dormant controversy surfaced once again, in connection with the proposed revision of the the Roman Missal (Sacramentary).
The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) proposed that the alleged "variation in the rite" that the BCL had offered should now apply to all English-speaking Churches in the world. Ignoring the Vatican’s 1988 instruction, ICEL embraced the logic of the American bishops liturgy committee.
Variation No. 6: …This variation in the rubric at the washing of the feet proposes that no mention be made of the sex of those whose feet are washed … the focus of this ritual moment is on Christian love and discipleship. The English rubric translates the Latin viri selecti as "Those who have been chosen". This translation leaves the matter open, does not prejudice the authority of the diocesan bishop, and reflects the present pastoral reality in many places throughout the English-speaking countries in which the feet of women and men are washed. (Segment Six: Holy Week, August 1995, p. 46.)
Cardinal Bevilacqua’s Response
This time, nearly a decade later, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, now archbishop of Philadelphia, was quick to point out the error in ICEL’s logic. The authority of the diocesan bishop in liturgical matters, as noted above, is regulated by the Apostolic See. But ICEL suggests that an accurate translation of the Latin actually "prejudice[s] the authority of the diocesan bishop". In a motion to amend the ICEL proposal, the Cardinal wrote:
…the logic of this rationale is flawed for to fail to translate "viri selecti" in the masculine does prejudice the situation. Such an omission has already been politicized in popular literature about the Holy Week celebrations. The deliberate choice of viri indicates a focus on the apostolic service of charity as an example for all Christians and certainly for the successors of the apostles.
Cardinal Bevilacqua also affirmed a link between the washing of the feet ritual and Holy Orders:
When one looks at the rite in the light of the readings and the texts used to accompany the rite the focus appears to be on the ministry of charity which Christ entrusts to His apostles in the very act of ministering to them. This certainly relates to the theme of the institution of the sacraments of Eucharist and Holy Orders in this celebration.
The continuation of this apostolic mission within the broader community of the Church is expressed in the rite and accompanying texts of the preparation of the gifts. All of this argues for the continual honoring of the Latin viri as the rubrical directive in this case.
But Cardinal Bevilacqua’s motion was rejected by the liturgy committee, then headed by Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, on the grounds that it "is already a pastoral practice in many parishes" and "many bishops themselves wash the feet of women".
The liturgy committee did not acknowledge its own role in creating the "present pastoral reality". It had not revoked its flawed 1987 interpretation, nor acknowledge the Vatican’s 1988 affirmation of the traditional practice.
The introduction of this ICEL "adaptation" (now approved by the American bishops but not yet confirmed by the Holy See) implicitly acknowledges that the BECL’s 1987 instruction to bishops was, simply, in error. Did the BCL have the authority to institute or ratify a practice which, in their own words, "differ[ed] from the rubric of the Sacramentary"?
What will be the effect if the proposed ICEL "adaptation" to include women in the footwashing ritual is confirmed by the Vatican? How would this make the true significance of the Holy Thursday ritual more clear?
Wouldn’t this give tacit approval to a seriously flawed method of orchestrating liturgical change? It has become a truism that if a liturgical abuse is committed frequently enough and it will ultimately receive official approval. Is this the message the Church should send?
Where Will This Path Lead?
Do we exaggerate? We think not. For, as we have shown, there is important symbolism in the footwashing ritual which may be lost — and this is only one part of one Mass during Holy Week. There are dozens of other proposed revisions which have equally profound meaning.
During the June 1994 NCCB meeting, one bishop wondered whether this generation of bishops would, in sixty years, be remembered for having presided over the dissolution of the Roman rite. He was lamenting the number of Adaptations proposed by ICEL, and the BCL in general.
This private lament resurfaced at the June 1995 meeting. ICEL’s departures from the official Latin texts caused Archbishop William J. Levada (then of Portland) to observe, "these changes amount to a massive revision of the basic ritual of the Church’s Roman Rite."
How the Holy See deals with the many revisions in the proposed ICEL Sacramentary will surely set the path for future liturgical changes throughout the world.
But will this path lead lead to greater devotion to Christ and His Church? Or will it lead to a maelstrom of confusion and evangelical lethargy, the bitter fruit of accommodating the worship of the Church to changing ideologies?
The liturgical innovation of ritually washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday demonstrates the persistence of those promoting the feminist ideology at the highest levels of the Church’s liturgical establishment in America. If the Holy See allows traditional liturgical practices such to be changed for merely "pastoral", sociological or ideological reasons, the Church may discover that not all of the paths lead to Rome — or to Christ.
Father Jerry Pokorsky is a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, and is a member of the Adoremus executive committee.
Related article: The Footwashing — Jesus Christ Establishes the New Covenant Before Calvary — by The Rev. Msgr. Anthony A. LaFemina
Relevant paragraphs of Paschalis Sollemnitatis follow:
45. Careful attention should be given to the mysteries that are commemorated in this Mass: the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and Christ’s command of brotherly love; the homily should explain these points.
51. The washing of the feet of chosen men [viri selecti] 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.
See Women for Faith & Family’s Holy Thursday page.