Footwashing, the Priesthood and the Eucharist

After attending Holy Thursday Mass with my family we discussed the footwashing being done in our parish with boys/teens from our Youth Ministry group. A very moving and powerful scene!

All of my daughters wanted to know why girls were not involved, and DH and I tried to explain that this was a symbolic gesture of Jesus calling the apostles to the priesthood. We follow what Christ did. Jesus washed the feet of male apostles, so that’s what we do today.

DD asked, “But Jesus gave the Eucharist only to his apostles at the Last Supper. So why is everyone allowed to receive Holy Communion?” (after the age of reason).

I’m stumped. Anyone else have an answer for why we say that since the apostles were men, only men’s feet should be washed today, yet we extend the Eucharist to all, even if Jesus only gave the Eucharist to His male apostles?

I can think of two reasons.

First, receiving Holy Communion was a universal mandate insofar as possible (cf. John 6) and the example of the early Church shows us that all Christians received Communion.

Second, the rite of washing feet appears to have been a devotional ritual. It does not appear to have been practiced year after year. It was done in various communities and celebrated in different ways (not always just washing the feet of men only). The the present Holy Thursday liturgical rite is designed to be a realistic symbol of the washing of the feet of the Apostles; thus, the feet of males are washed. This could change, but until such time as it does, it is to be done as the Church instructs.

There is an essay by Dr. Peter Jeffery entitled “Mandatum Novum Do Vobis : Toward a Renewal Of the Holy Thursday Footwashing Rite”. There is an expanded version which was published as “A New Commandment: Toward a Renewed Rite for the Washing of Feet”, Liturgical Press, 1992.

The Washing of Feet was always a liturgical drama (for lack of a better term).

Originally in the West it was done only in monasteries, where the abbot would wash the feet of 12 monks (or the abbess of 12 nuns) chosen by lot.

In the Byzantine tradition, it is strictly an bishop’s ceremony, where he washes the feet of 12 priests as the account from St. John is read. When the bishop gets to the senior priest, who represents St. Peter, the two say the words from Peter’s objection on in dialogue.

Comparable practices seem to exist in the other Eastern Churches (Catholic and non-Chalcedonian), as far as I can tell.

It’s only recently that footwashing has become a parish custom.

The Western rubrics specifically say “viri”, which is gender specific male.

Don’t forget that Western priests are bound to celibacy, and it’s probably for the purposes of propriety and modesty that the public washing of feet is done ONLY to men.

Especially since the priest is supposed to kiss the feet of those he washes.

I understand that the rubrics use the term “viri” to denote an adult male, but what is the reasoning behind the rubric? Is it because the apostles were all “viri”?

This question has been answered before.(do a search for foot or feet washing). The USCCB in 1989 allowed for both men and women, boys and girls to have thier feet washed. I would quess that the pastor and liturgy director made the decision for thier own reasons.
Our parish for many years has uase a cerimony to which any one who wishes to have thier feet washed and to wash anothers can do so. We have several stations with large clear bowls and pitchers of water. The preist and deacon invite the congregation forward, the ones that are first in line have thier feet washed with he presiders pouring water from the pitcher over the feet into the bowl, then that person, who just had thier feet washed then does the next person in line and so on.
Songs repeating the Gospel message are used. not all have to participate. It takes the practice beyond just a ritual action, but brings into focus Christ’s instructions to be servants to each other.


Here’s the difference. It’s not that foot-washing itself is somehow restricted to men who can represent the Apostles. It’s a matter of very specifically the Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper having its own unique ritual. Here, we are present at the Last Supper (“this night” not “that night”). The 12 men represent the 12 Apostles, so that we can “see” the Last Supper happening before us.

If some sort of foot-washing ritual were to be done at any other time or place it wouldn’t much matter who takes part. It wouldn’t be the Church’s Liturgy, but it would be a private “devotion” or whatever else it might be called.

I would disagree. It’s not a matter of a recreation to see what happened, it is to understand Christ’s message. Here He is the master, yet on bended knee he shows himself the servant, a selfless act to show as God he cares for all our needs. Just as imortant, this love is our example for each other needs. The greastest must become the least.


The account of the Last Supper was done in the context of a sacred liturgical act, the Passover. Jesus was instituting the new and everlasting covenant, a covenant that would be sealed in His Blood. He was charging the 12 (actually, from the looks of it, it’s the remaining 11, with Matthias to come later, but, that is another story) with doing the same. Doing the same meant that they would have to be ordained. Here, Jesus was the new Aaron, offering the new sacrifice and instituting a new priesthood. That is also why, in some locations, the Chrism Mass is also celebrated on Holy Thursday to show the intimate connection between the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the bishops and priests. Of course, in our case, it usually falls on a Tuesday, but, that still does not diminish the meaning.

While there are layered meanings to the washing of the feet, Jesus places this within the confines of the Last Supper. As I noted in the paragraph above, the Aaronic priests had to purify themselves before offering the sacrifice. Jesus, because He is all pure, did not need this purification ritual. The Apostles, on the other hand, did. And, since they were going to be charged with perpetuating this sacrificial offering of the True Paschal Lamb (Do this in memory of me), they needed to be purified.

Yes, I realize that there is the connection of service. However, the priest, in persona Christi, is to be the servant of all. Every day that he offers Mass he is persona Christi. This particular ministry is demanding because as John the Baptist predicted, “He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease.” Even the bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles, must be the servants of their dioceses. They are called to serve their flock, feeding them and tending them. A priestly vocation, lived correctly, involves emptying oneself and allowing Christ to completely take over.

One of the titles of the Supreme Pontiff is “servant of the servants of God.” That is why Jesus made it perfectly clear to Peter, the man he chose to be his Vicar, that if he did not get his feet washed, he would have no part of Jesus’ ministry.

Remember what Jesus also told Peter when Peter asked him to wash the rest of him as well his feet. He said that those who have bathed do not need to be bathed again, although not all are pure. He was referring here to Judas. Thus, Judas, even though his feet had been washed, did not have that purity of heart.

If we examine the ritual very carefully, the priest removes his chasuble, the symbol of his office (along with the stole) and washes the feet of the 12 men. The Holy Father goes a step further. He removes his chasuble and wears the dalmatic, the vestment proper to the deacon. The deacon’s original duty was to serve the community, tending to the widows and the orphans (this dates back to the Acts of the Apostles). His office is at the lower rung of the major orders (diaconate, prebyterate, episcopal). The Pope (and all bishops) possess the fullness of the priesthood, but, on Holy Thursday, the Pope assumes the role of servant, which is to say, that of the deacon.

It is not so much that we are doing a historical re-enactment. Even the portion of Eucharistic Prayer I refers to the Last Supper in the present tense, using the word today. We are not just living a moment in history. The celebrant is fulfilling what Jesus told the Apostles to do.

I just think that when we start to tool around with the rituals just because of some misguided notion, we wind up watering down the meaning. Yes, service is involved here. But, it is at a much deeper level. It winds up going back to the celebrant and his daily decreasing of himself so that Christ may increase through him. So then, the words of St. John the Baptist are the words of the celebrant, too, and those of every bishop and priest, “He must increase while I must decrease.”

There has been much made about a 1987 statement made by the USCCB regarding just whose feet may be washed. Paschale Solemnitatis cleared that up a year later, specifically stating that it is the feet of the 12 chosen men that are to be washed.

I think a great deal of confusion stems from the Holy See giving Father Sean O’Malley of Boston permission to wash the feet of females. One wonders why it did if the rite was to be limited to men? The Church must have known just how widespread the news would be that they approved the process.

Actually the 1987 statement allowing for women and children’s feet to be washed is still in effect and practiced.


But, Paschale Solemnitatis is the authoritative document of the Holy See on this matter and supercedes whatever the USCCB stated. Furthermore, any changes need to carry the recognitio of the Holy See. The statement that you quote does not. Thus, PS overrides it.

CARDINAL Sean O’Malley. Sorry about that.

No, it is not at all “in effect” not by the wildest stretch of the imagination. That 1987 “statement” was merely an opinion of certain members printed in the liturgy committee newsletter. It has absolutely no force of law. One is free to read it, or free to ignore it. It has no more force of law than an article in Time magazine.

The Lord washed the Apostles’ feet and then commissioned them to offer the Holy Mass for the good of the Church. The footwashing ritual is not something the Lord asked be done “in remembrance of him” like the Mass is done.

So, the footwashing ceremony is simply a re-enactment that harkens back to this one evening where Christ instituted the Holy Priesthood among the (male-only) Apostles. The Mass, however, is the action that Christ commanded them to “do” in perpetuity. He said that it would be for “the many”, and the ritual “pedigree” was the Passover, which included females receiving the Paschal Lamb to eat along with the males. So we can logically infer that Communion is for everyone able to receive.

It is in effect at least in my Arch-Diocese which quotes the 1987 publication as the reason. Now since the documents published by the Diocese is approved by the local ordinary, it does has the force of law here. I’m certain that this is not the only diocese who’s bishop sees the pastoral nature of the feet washing and allows it for all.


However, even the local ordinary’s authority is limited. He cannot supercede what the Holy See has decreed and this decree is found in Paschale Solemnitatis, which came out a year after the USCCB’s statement. The lower body cannot overrule the Supreme authority, in this case, the Holy See.

It’s not that simple.

A Circular Letter from a Congregation is not necessarily “law.” So it does not necessarily supersede what a diocesan bishop may decide. The diocesan bishop is the chief liturgist and legislator for his diocese, while OF COURSE always acting in communion with the Pope and all other bishops. It’s not accurate to simply assume that diocesan bishop is “lower” than anything that comes from the Vatican. Read Lumen Gentium and the Code of Canon Law regarding the nature of the episcopacy and the papacy.

I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as many might like. And, from what I’ve observed, many bishops don’t either as I’ve observed such a wide variety of practices in many dioceses regarding this specific ritual (which I of course am not assuming indicates there are a whole bunch of dissident or ignorant bishops out there).

And how would you know that? It certainly carries more of a force of law than a statement made by a USCCB committee which does not carry any recognitio from Rome. Furthermore, the Circular Letter states very clearly what should and should not be done during Lent and Holy Week. In addidtion, any adaptation that a particular national episcopal conference wishes to make must receive the necessary recognitio from the Holy See.

The bishos act in communion with the Holy Father. However, they cannot supercede whatever the Holy See has decreed. The Holy Father (and thus, the Holy See), does not act like he is first among equals. He is the supreme authority. He exercises this authority through the various curial offices of the Holy See.

Furthermore, if you are discounting a ciruclar letter and merely thinking it to be opinion, then you would also be discounting other circular letters such as the one concerning the integrity of the Sacrament of Penance which clearly and very strongly forbids a willy-nilly approach to general absolution.

In addition, in 2008, 20 years after PS was released, the CDWDS reaffirmed that the washing of the feet is only for men.

Reading, study, a basic familiarity with some basic canon law principles (and I emphasize basic because I am no canon lawyer), and asking people who know more than I do.

I am not at all discounting this or any Circular Letter. Sorry if you read it that way, but it’s not at all what I said. No need to be defensive. Check out Lumen Gentium and Canon Law, they are very good resources for reflection and understanding of the episcopacy and how it could/should be exercised.

The life of the Church cannot, imho, be reduced to what’s received a recognitio from Rome. Thanks be to God.

Actually, your final statement would mean that, as I read it, you would be discounting papal supremacy and the essential role of the Petrine ministry.

If you read the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, you will note that no one, not even the celebrant, is free to do whatever he pleases with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In fact, Redemptionis Sacramentum makes this point very clear:

[14.] “The regulation of the Sacred Liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, which rests specifically with the Apostolic See and, according to the norms of law, with the Bishop”.34

[15.] The Roman Pontiff, “the Vicar of Christ and the Pastor of the universal Church on earth, by virtue of his supreme office enjoys full, immediate and universal ordinary power, which he may always freely exercise”,35 also by means of communication with the pastors and with the members of the flock.

[16.] **"It pertains to the Apostolic See to regulate the Sacred Liturgy of the universal Church, to publish the liturgical books and to grant the recognitio for their translation into vernacular **languages, as well as to ensure that the liturgical regulations, especially those governing the celebration of the most exalted celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass, are everywhere faithfully observed".36

[17.] “The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments attends to those matters that pertain to the Apostolic See as regards the regulation and promotion of the Sacred Liturgy, and especially the Sacraments, with due regard for the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It fosters and enforces sacramental discipline, especially as regards their validity and their licit celebration”. Finally, it “carefully seeks to ensure that the liturgical regulations are observed with precision, and that abuses are prevented or eliminated whenever they are detected”.37 In this regard, according to the tradition of the universal Church, pre-eminent solicitude is accorded the celebration of Holy Mass, and also to the worship that is given to the Holy Eucharist even outside Mass.

[18.] Christ’s faithful have the right that ecclesiastical authority should fully and efficaciously regulate the Sacred Liturgy lest it should ever seem to be “anyone’s private property, whether of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated”.38

The local ordinary has authority only so far. The ultimate authority lies with the Supreme Pontiff who exercises it, in this particular manner, through the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

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