Foot Washing

by Jimmy Akin

in Liturgical Year

A reader writes:

Do the rubrics for Holy Thursday allow the priest the was the feet of 6 men and 6 women? Can you point out where I might find a definitive answer? I am told that Rome says, "no" but that the U.S. Bishops have given permission for this as a "cultural adaptation".

A STATEMENT ON THIS SUBJECT FROM THE USCCB’S WEB SITE CAN BE FOUND HERE.

There are two things to note about this statement:

First, it correctly states:

The rubric for Holy Thursday, under the title WASHING OF FEET, reads:

"Depending on pastoral circumstance, the washing of feet follows the homily. The men who have been chosen (viri selecti) are led by the ministers to chairs prepared at a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers he pours water over each one’s feet and dries them."

The term viri selecti does indeed mean "chosen men"–that is, adult males who have been selected for participation in the rite. The term vir always designates an adult male in Latin. This rubric requires twelve males because they are representing the Twelve Apostles whose feet Jesus washed.

Second, the statement goes on to say:

[T]he element of humble service has accentuated the celebration of the foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In this regard, it has become customary in many places 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. Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service.

Taken simply as a factural description, this is true. It has become customary in many places in the U.S. to invite women to participate in the rite, and for the reasons stated.

Unfortuantely, that doesn’t make it legally permitted to do so. The Code of Canon Law requires:

Can.  846 §1. In celebrating the sacraments the liturgical books approved by competent authority are to be observed faithfully; accordingly, no one is to add, omit, or alter anything in them on one’s own authority [SOURCE].

Since no legislative action has been taken allowing local variation in regard to this matter, it appears that the use of women and children in the rite of footwashing is at variance with Church law.

What the statement on the USCCB’s web site appears to do is treat the matter ambiguously such that it states the law in a way that is accurate while describing a practice prevalent in the U.S. witout noting that it is at variance with the law.

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{ 21 comments }

Marv Wood February 28, 2005 at 5:42 am

It is just another “altar girl” situation. We will just commit this liturgical abuse until the Vatican caves in and accepts it.

BillyHW February 28, 2005 at 5:57 am

Where did all the man-hatred come from?

Brian February 28, 2005 at 10:06 am

This reminds me of mass this weekend when I visited another parish. The choir was replacing Him/He with God when singing the Psalms and Hymns. It seems so forced and out of place to do that when you’re reading along in the songbook and every Him/He referring to God is replaced with God in the music. I’m sorry, but I refuse to feel badly about referring to God as Him/He when He calls Himself our Father and asks us to baptize in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It irritates me to no end that people feel the need to do these kinds of inclusive language changes!

Nick February 28, 2005 at 11:24 am

How is this generally handled in the Catholic Church? I have to admit, given the usual Anti-Catholic rhetoric about the orbital mind control lasers I’m always surprised how much friction actually exists. Are there places in the US where appropriate Catholic Masses happen?
Given my understanding (admittedly limited) of the Catholic view of Mass and Alter Boys I’m flabbergasted that Alter Girls happen *anywhere*. How common are they?

Tom C February 28, 2005 at 12:05 pm

The altar girl stuff is really starting to bug me. It’s a major distraction during Mass. We now have an altar woman at Mass from time to time. I haven’t seen a grown woman play the part of a boy since I last saw “Twelfth Night” at the Shakespeare festival.
Does anyone have the complete story on altar girls? When did this start? Why? What has Rome’s position on the matter been?

dcs February 28, 2005 at 4:03 pm

What has Rome’s position on the matter been?
Rome initially demurred, then caved into the pressure and permitted altar girls in an authentic interpretation of Canon Law in 1994. I don’t know whether the practice was common before that time; I wasn’t Catholic then. You never see altar girls in the movies. ;-)
It is interesting to note that from the VIIth century down to the middle of the XXth century 13 men had their feet washed.

Peter March 1, 2005 at 5:02 am

The offical missal is one of those places where Tradition and tradition mix. It’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart. Perhaps foot washing only males is of the small ‘t’ variety, just as we learned that only allowing males to serve at the altar was small ‘t’.
I think that one of the problems with having lots of detailed rules (like the Catholic Church) is that it is easy to start thinking that our salvation comes from our adherence to the rules.

dcs March 1, 2005 at 7:30 am

The offical missal is one of those places where Tradition and tradition mix. It’s sometimes difficult to tell them apart. Perhaps foot washing only males is of the small ‘t’ variety, just as we learned that only allowing males to serve at the altar was small ‘t’.
It doesn’t really matter whether it is ‘t’raditon or ‘T’radition. The fact of the matter is that those pastors who knowingly permit the feet of women to be washed on Maundy Thursday are disobedient.

dcs March 1, 2005 at 7:30 am

I think that one of the problems with having lots of detailed rules (like the Catholic Church) is that it is easy to start thinking that our salvation comes from our adherence to the rules.
We’re a lot more likely to be saved following the rules than we are disobeying them.

Peter March 1, 2005 at 9:44 am

It doesn’t really matter whether it is ‘t’raditon or ‘T’radition. The fact of the matter is that those pastors who knowingly permit the feet of women to be washed on Maundy Thursday are disobedient.
I agree. I also think that the Church can one day change this rule. And I think that we will find, as with women serving at the altar, the world won’t come to an end.
But, there are people who are aghast that small-t traditions have been changed (women at the altar, as in the posts above, or meat on Friday outside of Lent, or mass in other-than-Latin, or Communion in the hand, etc.).

Peter March 1, 2005 at 9:50 am

We’re a lot more likely to be saved following the rules than we are disobeying them.
True, one ignores things like the Ten Commandments at their grave peril. But, again, following the rules is not what saves us. I doubt we will end up in eternal fire if the Church changes various small-t traditions now and again, as the Spirit prompts.

Maureen March 2, 2005 at 5:00 am

Prior to Vatican II, it was apparently fairly common to have girl students, at American girls’ schools run by the sisters, assist in serving Mass during the school day. My mother did this at her high school. The priest would always make a show of trying to find a boy to do the job, apparently…. ;)
Probably this was not something advertised to boys, though.
That said, it’s a disgrace that so many boys don’t or won’t serve. Both my brothers did, and frequently, too. (And I got to carry a candle once through the Stations, when no boy would volunteer, and I leaned on my mom’s precedent. Dang, those candles were heavy.)

M.Z. Forrest March 2, 2005 at 5:37 am

Just curious, is there an age limit on altar boys? A couple weeks back I went to a Sunday evening mass and witnessed a 12-year-old altar boy and a 60-year-old altar girl holding and raising their hands high with the priest during the Our Father. It seems to me to be a backdoor to having priestesses or deaconesses.

ricardo March 24, 2005 at 4:57 pm

Is there a legitimate national catholic group whose objective is to star a cohesive movement against these liturgical abuses that are becoming common and accepted.
I would like to join to work to correct these abuses does anyone know
Ricardo C.

ricardo Newball March 24, 2005 at 5:00 pm

Is there a national authentically catholic group whose objective is to work to correct these abuses which are becoming acceptable due in large part to the lack of knowledge of the laws of the church.
i would love to join such a group
ricardo c.

Suzanne March 24, 2005 at 7:02 pm

Hey, I just got back from Holy Thursday Mass. I was very surprised to see Men, women and children getting their feet washed. *sigh*

nicole March 24, 2005 at 8:00 pm

They washed the feet of all the RCIA candidates at the parish I am going to, men and women. The ceremony was beautiful and I actually had tears in my eyes. Of all the parishes I have been to, in my opinion, this one is the most reverent and solid in adhering to Catholic teachings. Initially I was concerned about women having their feet washed, so I brought it up with the RCIA director, who said our bishop had given permission for both men and women to have feet washed. Don’t priests take a vow of obedience to the bishop? So I really don’t think they’re at fault.

nicole March 24, 2005 at 8:01 pm

P.S. By “they”, I mean just the priests washed all the candidates feet…

SD April 8, 2005 at 6:34 pm

I don’t unerstand what’s wrong with girls being altar servers. If they want to serve God and their parish, let them.

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NYCCatholic November 14, 2007 at 1:11 pm

Being an altar boy was one of the happiest times of my childhood. Those years of service were a significant force in both building my self-esteem and forming my conscience.
Today, those personal attributes are more necessary than ever and I’m grateful that both boys and girls can experience this unique honor and privelege.

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