Pope Francis has once again arrested the attention of the world with another rogue footwashing — this year at a Rome center for the disabled. After the traditional Chrism Mass at a packed basilica earlier in the day, he celebrated a touching Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a house of the Don Gnocchi Foundation, a skilled-care center in Rome’s Casal del Marmo section, and washed the feet of 12 patients of various sexes and ages, to the singing of Ubi Caritas Est. Rocco has captured it for us from the Vatican feed — without commentary.
And once again, of course, the traditionalists are complaining and lamenting. I wrote about the fuss last year. But it is worth saying a little more this year. Last time I addressed the argument that the Pope can’t or at least shouldn’t violate liturgical law. You can read my take on that here. Other arguments presented this year include insistence that any desire to allow women to have their feet washed is a threat to the male priesthood, because priesthood is what the rite is all about.
It is true that the passage in John’s Gospel from which this rite is drawn (Jn 13:1-15) has multiple meanings. There have been many suggestions as to what our Lord’s actions symbolized, including baptism and forgiveness of sins in Confession. An excellent case can be made out (as Dr. Leroy Huizinga makes it here) that on this occasion Our Lord actually ordained the apostles to the priesthood, by analogy with the consecration of priests in the Old Testament, which included the washing of their feet. All this is very true. But while it is one of the things this Gospel passage is about, it’s not what the liturgical rite of footwashing is about, something Dr. Huizinga unfortunately goes on to suggest. But the evidence is all against this.
The rite actually has a quite long history in the Church, though before 1955, it was seldom performed during Mass. It was a part of baptismal services in the early Church (related to the baptismal meaning of the Gospel; see above). But for the most part, its significance was connected with the explanation of Jesus himself:
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Amen, amen, I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. (Jn 13:14-16).
So the washing of feet became a sign of humble service to neighbor, particularly to the poor, the powerless or those of lower rank. In the Middle Ages, the Pope would wash the feet of poor men after celebrating Mass. Rulers and nobility did the same as a sign of Christian humility and service. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, wife of the ruler of Thuringia, would wash the feet of lepers on Holy Thursday. Monks washed the feet of guests at the monastery. The people being washed in those case weren’t necessarily always men.
When done by a bishop as a sign of humility and service to his clergy, or by a priest to the lower clergy under him, the practice developed into a rite in which the passage from John’s Gospel was chanted, and it was celebrated in connnection with the Holy Thursday Mass, but separate from the liturgy itself. Following the Council of Trent, with the adoption of a centralized and codified liturgy, the rite remained separate from the liturgy, until Pope Pius XII made it an optional part of the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper (Missa in Coena Domini) when he restored the Easter Triduum in 1955. But the rite did not change the significance it had always had for centuries.
The Sacred Congregation of Rites, in the decree accompanying the change (Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria, November 16, 1955, Instruction), noted:
Finally, wherever the washing of feet is performed in church according to the rubrics of the restored Order, to manifest the Lord’s commandment of brotherly love, the faithful are to be taught the profound significance of this sacred rite and the opportunity to be generous in the works of Christian charity on this day.
Paschales Solemnitatis, the 1988 Document from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, prescribing the manner of celebration of the Liturgy Holy Wee, echoes this precisely:
51. 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.” This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.
The actual passage in the Roman Missal does mention men as being recipients, but doesn’t specify their number. The specification of men was of course, a hangover from the earlier rite as performed for the clergy, separate in a way from the general practice, but having the same meaning of charity and service. Whether in our day the rite should be revised to reflect the broader practice inside the Church is something for the CDW to consider. But as a liturgical rite, the footwashing does not seem to have ever had anything to do with priestly ordination.
The priesthood, yes. Pope Francis explained it best last year: “I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service.” But the same is true of all of us, who share in the priesthood of all the faithful. Let’s remember to be generous with our service these last days of Holy Week. And generous in our interpretations of what the Holy Father is doing.
A Happy Easter to all!