On The Foot-Washing Rite

The foot-washing rite, called the Mandatum, was re-introduced into the liturgy by Pope Pius XII in 1955.

A circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) explains its purpose: “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 Jan 1988), n. 51.

The rubrics for Holy Thursday in the new Roman Missal (2011) - Mass of the Lord’s Supper §11 states (with emphasis added):

The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place. Then the Priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each one, and, with the help of the ministers, pours water over each one’s feet and then dries them.

In original Latin it reads: Viri selecti deducuntur a ministris ad sedilia loco apto parata. Tunc sacerdos (deposita, si necesse sit, casula) accedit ad singulos, eisque fundit aquam super pedes et abstergit, adiuvantibus ministris.

Additionally, in 2008 the Congregation for Divine Worship clarified the use of the word “Viri” or “men” (with emphasis added):

According to the Missale Romanum (teria editio typica 2002), Feria V in Cena Domini, Ad Missam vespertinam, no. 11, the washing of feet is reserved to “chosen men” (viri selecti), that is male persons. This is also stated in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum (editio typica 1984, reimpressio 1995), no. 301. This Dicastery considers this legislation clear and wishes to add nothing further.

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 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.

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