How Should We Understand Pope Francis Washing Women’s Feet?

by jimmyakin

in +PopeFrancis, Liturgical Year

The future Pope Francis washes the feet of a unidentified woman on Holy Thursday at the Buenos Aires’ Sarda maternity hospital on March 24, 2005.

It has been widely reported that, when he was still the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, the future Pope Francis washed the feet of women during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

Now he has done so as pope.

Here are some thoughts on Pope Francis’s decision and what it means.


This Year’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper

It was surprising but not surprising when the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had chosen to celebrate this year’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper not in one of the papal basilicas of Rome but, instead, in its juvenile prison.

That’s precisely the kind of gesture that we have come to expect from the new pope in the short time we’ve been getting to know him.

It’s not traditional, but it’s humble and evangelistic.

And it corresponds to Jesus’ remarks that, when we visit those in prison, we are spiritually visiting him (Matthew 25:36-40).

It’s also in keeping with things he’s done before, such as holding the service in a maternity hospital in Buenos Aires in 2005.

So what happened with the footwashing ceremony this year?

The BBC is reporting:

During Thursday’s intimate service, the Pope washed and kissed the feet of 12 young detainees to replicate the Bible’s account of Jesus Christ’s gesture of humility towards his 12 apostles on the night before he was crucified.

The 12 inmates included two girls, one Italian Catholic and one of Serbian Muslim origin, local prison ombudsman Angiolo Marroni said ahead of the ceremony.

That’s certainly a dramatic gesture.
A Muslim Girl?

It had been announced, in advance, that the young people who were going to be participating in the ceremony would be coming from different religious backgrounds, so this wasn’t a total surprise, but it was a striking choice.

What should we make of it?

I think we should understand it in the same light that explains the initial decision to celebrate this Mass in a youth prison: Pope Francis wants to reach out to the young people in the prison and bring them the light of Christ.

He is taking the role of a servant and an evangelist.

What he is doing hopefully will have a profound impact on the lives of these young people, hopefully setting them on the right path both in terms of civil law and in terms of their faith life.

He’s also, by this action, showing the world that he takes his role seriously as a servant of all people and an evangelist to all people.

Washing and kissing the feet of a Muslim girl in jail signifies that rather dramatically.

It also raises questions.



Here are a few:

  1. What do the Church’s liturgical documents say about footwashing?
  2. How does Pope Francis’s decision relate to this?
  3. If the pope is going beyond what the Roman Missal says, can the pope just do that?
  4. If he can do it, can others?
  5. What should we expect in the future?
  6. How should we understand the rite in light of this?

Let’s look at each of these . . .


1. What do the Church’s liturgical documents say about footwashing?

There are two key places one should look for an understanding of the footwashing ceremony. The first is found in the document that governs the celebrations connected with Easter, which is called Paschales Solemnitatis. According to this document:

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.

Please take note of the highlighted phrase. It will be important later.

The second document is the Roman Missal, which states:

10. After the Homily, where a pastoral reason suggests it, the Washing of Feet follows.

The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place. Then the Priest (removing the 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.

Meanwhile some of the following antiphons or other appropriate chants are sung.

[Antiphons omitted]

13. After the Washing of Feet, the Priest washes and dries his hands, puts the chasuble back on, and returns to the chair, and from there he directs the Universal Prayer.

The Creed is not said.

There are several things to note here:

  1. The text does speak of “men” having their feet washed. The Latin term that is used in the original (viri) indicates adult males specifically.
  2. This rite is optional; it is done “where a pastoral reason suggests it.”
  3. There is no specific number of men specified. It does not say twelve men are to have their feet washed. How many is a decision open to the celebrating priest.
  4. Although I have omitted the antiphons for reasons of space, none of them speak of the “apostles.” They either use the more generic term “disciples” or they do not mention the disciples at all but rather Jesus’ example for us or his commandment to love one another.


2. How does Pope Francis’s decision relate to this?

Pope Francis’s decision goes beyond what is provided in these texts in at least one respect: Instead of washing the feet of adult males, he decided to wash the feet of young women as well.

The fact that one of them was a Muslim does not go beyond what the letter of the text specifies, since it does not indicate that the chosen men are to be Catholics (or other Christians).

One would expect that they would be Catholics, and one could argue that this is implied in the text, but since Pope Francis is now the individual who is ultimately responsible for interpreting the text, if he judges that it does not prevent washing the feet of non-Christians then it doesn’t.

His decision does go beyond the text in the matter of men, however.


3. Can Pope Francis just do things that aren’t provided for in the law?

Yes. The pope does not need anybody’s permission to make exceptions to how ecclesiastical law relates to him. He is canon law’s ultimate legislator, interpreter, and executor.

And it’s not uncommon, at least in recent decades, for a pope to make exceptions to the law in how papal ceremonies are performed.

John Paul II frequently held liturgies that departed from what the Church’s liturgical texts provide, particularly when he was making a form of dramatic outreach, and Pope Francis seems to be following in his footsteps.


4. If he can do this, can others?

Technically speaking, no. If a pope judges that, due to the particular circumstances of a papal celebration, an exception should be made, that does not create a legal precedent allowing others to do so.

After all, not everybody is in the same situation as the pope. They don’t have the same pastoral circumstances or the same legal authority, and so if he makes an exception in his application of the law in his own case, it does not create a legal precedent for others doing so who do not have his circumstances or authority.

On the other hand, if people see the pope doing something, they are naturally going to treat it as an example to be followed.

People naturally imitate their leader. That’s the whole point behind Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He was explicitly and intentionally setting an example for them.

Pope Francis knows that he is setting an example.

It has been reported, e.g., that when he was told that he didn’t need to pay his pre-conclave hotel bill that he insisted on doing so, saying expressly that, as the pope, he needed to set an example.


5. What should we expect in the future?

It’s hard to say.

On a practical level, I would expect that there will be more priests who do things similar to what the pope has done.

On a legal level, the matter is more uncertain.

We may get a clarification of the matter, perhaps from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

I suspect that, if we do get a clarification, it is likely to be one allowing more flexibility in terms of who has their feet washed.

Already, the Congregation for Divine Worship has, apparently, indicated privately that a bishop can wash women’s feet if he feels a pastoral exception should be made. At least, that’s what Cardinal O’Malley indicated he was told when he asked them about the subject (see here for more info).

We’ll have to see, though. They may not say anything.


6. How should we understand the rite in light of Pope Francis’s action?

There has been a tendency in some circles to see the footwashing rite as linked specifically to the twelve apostles, and this has been presented as a reason why it should be limited to men.

In the past, I myself promoted that understanding, because that is how it was first explained to me.

It’s a natural understanding, particularly when twelve individuals are chosen to have their feet washed, and in an age when altar girls and women’s ordination have been receiving attention.

However, as I’ve looked more closely at the texts, other elements have struck me:

  • First, as we mentioned, the number twelve is not mandated in the text. The number is the choice of the celebrating priest. That, right there, loosens the connection of the rite with the apostles.
  • Second, this event is recorded only in John’s Gospel, and John does not describe Jesus as washing the feet of “the apostles.” Instead, John says that he washed the feet of “his disciples.” Disciples is a more generic term than apostles. Although they are sometimes used synonymously, Jesus had many more disciples than he did apostles.
  • Third, none of the antiphons sung during this rite (which might give clues to its meaning) speak of the “apostles.” They either use the more generic term “disciples” or they do not mention the disciples at all but rather Jesus’ example for us and his commandment to love one another. 
  • Fourth, none of the explanatory texts for this rite explain it in terms of an action directed specifically to the apostles.


The most direct explanation of the rite’s purpose is found in Paschales Solemnitatis, which says:

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.

This indicates that we should understand that this rite “represents the service and charity of Christ”–not as a statement about ordination to the priesthood. To read it that way goes beyond what the texts indicate.

According to the texts, our focus should be on the service and charity displayed in the rite and how we should serve and be charitable to one another.

The rite should not be read in the matrix of issues like women’s ordination. This rite isn’t about ordination, the way the Church understands it.

At least that’s how Pope Francis seems to understand it.


A Final Thought

I’d add one more thing, which is that it’s understandable that we might be perplexed or concerned about this.

After all, we do live in an age in which authentic Catholic teaching involving gender is under assault. The last few years have seen a lot of flashpoints involving the idea of women’s ordination.

It’s understandable that issues like altar servers and footwashing would be viewed in that matrix.

At the same time, we should keep this in perspective.

The footwashing ceremony is only an optional rite, and it was only made part of this Mass in 1955 by Pope Pius XII, so it’s modern liturgical use doesn’t even go back that far.

The question of who serves at altar is far more closely connected to who is likely to think about becoming a priest than the question of who has their feet washed on Holy Thursday.

If the Holy See were to decide to expand how the law is to be applied in this case, it would not signal the end of the world.

If the Church can survive altar girls, it can certainly survive a change in the discipline regarding who has their feet washed.

More from Dr. Edward Peters.

And Fr. Longenecker.

And Fr. Z.



By the Way . . .

At 9:00 a.m. (Eastern) on Easter Sunday, I’m going to be sending a special communique to the Secret Information Club.

It’s on 7 reasons why Jesus rose from the dead (defending the Resurrection).

I only send this mailing out once a year.

Current club members will automatically receive it.

If you’re not yet a member and you’d like to receive a copy, be sure to sign up by then.

Just use the handy form below . . .


What Now?

If you like the information I’ve presented here, you should join my Secret Information Club.

If you’re not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

In fact, the very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is information about what Pope Benedict said about the book of Revelation.

He has a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at if you have any difficulty.

In the meantime, what do you think?

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!

What is the Secret Information Club?I value your email privacy


pseudomodo March 28, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Thanks Jimmy,
Of course this is not surprising!
”When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
– Richard Nixon

sitsio March 29, 2013 at 12:56 am

PartTimePilgrim yes that was good. I thought Fr. Z’s post was good on it too CCFather JimmyAkin3000 idlerambler JHSteelson

CCFather March 29, 2013 at 1:00 am

sitsio Off to walk the hound before stations: will resume later… PartTimePilgrim JimmyAkin3000 idlerambler JHSteelson

idlerambler March 29, 2013 at 1:14 am

CCFather Walk of Witness (ecumenical) for us through local High Street. sitsio PartTimePilgrim JimmyAkin3000 JHSteelson

sitsio March 29, 2013 at 1:17 am

idlerambler that sounds good CCFather PartTimePilgrim JimmyAkin3000 JHSteelson

idlerambler March 29, 2013 at 1:26 am

sitsio We carry a large cross & stop at ‘Stations’ along the High Street. CCFather PartTimePilgrim JimmyAkin3000 JHSteelson

CCFather March 29, 2013 at 1:39 am

idlerambler Great witness! sitsio PartTimePilgrim JimmyAkin3000 JHSteelson

KathyJohns March 29, 2013 at 6:34 am

I think Pope Francis will be the one to heal the nightmares of our church.  His humbleness brings me to tears and my knees.  I am a Catholic whose heart has been crushed.  He has only been a Pope for a very short time but his actions are a true blessing to witness.  I THINK I LOVE HIM! @idlerambler

RayCherry March 29, 2013 at 8:02 am

I noteiced it said “of Muslim origin”, not that the girl was muslim herself. Really gotta watch those symantics you know.

Curious March 29, 2013 at 9:20 am

Hello Jimmy,
      Thanks for the article and thanks for being honest about your previous interpretations.  Your links to Dr. Peters and Fr. Dwight express my concerns pretty well.  I think the Pope’s action here will be interpreted by many priests and bishops that they can do what they want with the liturgy.  I fear we are headed back to clown liturgies and other messes.  With that will be a return to squishiness about adherence to Church doctrine as codified in the Catechism. 
     Another question.  As RayCherry notes, we really have no idea what “of Muslim origin” means in this context.  Was this girl Catholic?  Since she was at the liturgy, did she receive Communion?  Were any of the other attendees non-Catholic yet received communion?  Alot of unpleasant questions.
     Lastly, foot washing means something definite in the Christian world.  But what does it mean in the Muslim world?  If this girl were truly Muslim, could this be interpreted in the Muslim world as a form of submission by the Pontiff to Islam?

JeffPeters March 29, 2013 at 7:54 pm

The rite is not old and thus not set in stone in the way people claim. The big tip off that Dr. Peters is wrong is when he says this: “liturgical law.” It isn’t in the Catechism, thus it isn’t the “law.” It was a put together rite that was not mandatory nor set in stone. Hence why the USCCB made it really clear for a long time that they not only allow women to have feet washed but still state that it was never overturned as invalid by the Vatican.

Curious March 31, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Hello Jeff,
      There is much more to the tradition which the Catholic Church maintains than just the Catechism.  The rubrics for how Masses are celebrated are part of the this tradition, as well as Canon Law.  Jimmy and Dr. Peters reference the liturgical document in this case.  And clearly, unlike a US president, the Pope does have the power to over ride this guidance since he has the executive and legislative powers in his person.  The problem is how this will be interpreted by the rest of the church.  While the Pope has this power, bishops and priests do not.  I fear they won’t realize this. 
     Given that this rite has been prone to abuse in the past and is optional, if I were a pastor, I’d plan to omit it in the future, to avoid sending ambiguous messages.

JeffPeters April 2, 2013 at 5:51 pm

No. If it is not in the Catechism, it is not dogma. Even items in the Catechism, like the statement on the death penalty, does not contain the same judgment and thus Pope Benedict made it clear that it was not a sin to support the death penalty. “Tradition” among the laity is not dogma. It has no power over faith. The “rubrics” are not “rubrics.” The US Catholic Bishops made that very clear and the Vatican backed them up. This is people practicing heresy by going against the Holy See and placing themselves above the bishops. Luther and Calvin did the same thing and there is a place for such individuals.

JeffPeters April 2, 2013 at 5:56 pm

From the Catholic Encyclopedia: Christ’s command to wash one another’s feet must have been understood from the beginning in a literal sense, for St. Paul (1 Timothy 5:10) implies that a widow to be honoured and consecrated in the Church should be one “having testimony for her good works, if she have received to harbour, if she have washed the saints’ feet”.
Both men and women are called to wash feet and to have their feet washed. There is not a gender statement here. Otherwise, you are saying that Paul was wrong, and that is quite arrogant.

reguerrah March 29, 2013 at 1:31 pm

This has nothing to do with the Pope Francis being liberal (modernist) In regards to Pope Francis washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday, Father Federico Lombardi, spokesman for the Holy See told the Associated Press that in «great solemn celebration» it would be logical to wash the feet of only men, because it commemorates the last supper of Jesus with his Apostles, «in a small and unique community, composed also by women», as in the Casal of Marmo juvenile detention center, it would have been «inappropriate» exclude women, «in the light of the simple aim of communicating a message of love to everyone in a group that did not include refined experts of liturgical regulations». In other words, this exception to the rule was done for pastoral reasons in a very unique situation that merited the inclusion of the two teenage girls. The existing liturgical rubrics still apply to an ordinary Holy Thursday Mass. God Bless !

JeffPeters March 29, 2013 at 7:46 pm

Washing the feet has not been traditional. It was a forgotten rite that was re-instituted and is not guaranteed in the Catechism. The USCCB makes it very clear that women are allowed to have their feet washed, and this has happened for a long time. The washing of the feet is not done because we are pretending to be Jesus and the Apostles. It is done because Jesus commanded that we must serve others, and it is a symbolic act of servitude. He also did not say to serve only one type of people, and Paul made it clear that the message was for Jews and Gentiles alike. The Pope had it right, and there are quite a bit of heretics spreading many lies right now.

BillyHW March 30, 2013 at 8:49 am

I want Pope Benedict back.  He didn’t go around showing off about how much humility he had.

Bill912 April 5, 2013 at 4:44 am

 And Pope Francis is doing this, how?  I read about people who know him telling of his humility, but from Pope Francis I only see the setting of a good example.  He acts humbly; ow else does a humble person act?

Bill912 April 5, 2013 at 4:45 am

 (h)ow else
Proofread, proofread, proofread!

John Gold March 31, 2013 at 2:40 am

Kissing the feet of a Muhamadan girl?
Look, the Church jumped the shark a long time ago when it came to ecumenicalism and interlligious dialogue.  There were no calls for the pope to resign after Assisi or the Koran-kissing episode, not even a single rebuke from any bishop.
Get over it.

Anabel April 5, 2013 at 2:06 am

So much attention has been given on the feet washing, that no one seems to ask why the Holy Eucharist was not mentioned in both homilies that day.  The very day that the Lord gave us this great gift of Himself and all the attention ends up on the washing of feet.  I would also like to know about the distribution of Holy Communion and if all those in the prison were allowed to receive including those of other faiths.  Its quite difficult to get an answer to this very valid and important question, so I would appreciate some enlightenment as we should know as it affects the whole Church.  If other faiths were allowed to come up and receive, this would be very serious indeed as it goes against the Church’s teaching as you well know. God bless you on your work.

Bill912 April 5, 2013 at 3:35 am

Why would you even consider the possibility that Pope Francis might have permitted such a sacrilege to take place?

JeffPeters April 5, 2013 at 5:01 am

The Homily does not need to mention the Eucharist. He mentioned it in the Gospel and during communion. Why would you make such disruptive statements like the above without any basis for them?

Previous post:

Next post: