‘A Development That Follows the Logic of the Rite’: Augé on Foot-washing

Editor’s note: The following was posted by Barry Hudock, author and publisher of the parish market for Liturgical Press, on his personal blog, Faith Meets World. It is shared with his permission. 

Matias Augé is a highly regarded liturgical theologian and longtime professor at the Anselmo, the renowned Benedictine school of liturgical theology in Rome. Below are the reflections that Fr. Augé offered on his blog two days ago, with the announcement of Pope Francis’s change to the rubrics of the Holy Thursday foot-washing rite.

The original post is in Italian; the translation is mine, as are the bracketed translations of the Latin passages. (My thanks to Fr. Anthony Ruff, who helped me understand the reference to the “signal given with the tabula” in the second paragraph. More on that here.)

It’s worth noting in reading this: mimetic refers to imitating something, whileanamnetic refers to liturgically memorializing it.

The Rite of Foot-Washing in the Roman Liturgy

By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus made visible the logic of love and of service that guided his life toward his death on the cross. But this gesture of Jesus is also the foundation of an ecclesial practice. The Christian community is invited to follow the way of service: “…so you ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14).

The Roman liturgy has included the foot-washing in the context of Holy Thursday rather recently, only in the second millennium, as we see in the twelfth century Pontificale Romano, in which the rite take place after Vespers. The thirteenth century liturgy of the Roman Curia includes this rite in an abbreviated form, which then passes into the Messale Romano of Pius V, in its 1570 edition, where it is celebrated outside of Mass during the afternoon. It is worth noting that the rubric of this Missal does not seem to preoccupy itself with the mimetic dimension of Jesus’s action. In fact, the rubric does not speak of washing the feet of “twelve” people; it says simply: “Post denudationem altarium, hora competenti, facto signo cum tabula, conveniunt clerici ad faciendum mandatum. Maior abluit pedes minoribus: tergit  et osculatur…” [“After the altar is stripped, and at the proper hour, the signal having been given with the tabula, the clergy present carry out the mandatum. The seniorwashes the feet of his lessers: he wipes and kisses them…”] Note that this gesture is carried out only among the members of the clergy. Here we see that that liturgy is in general more anamnetic than mimetic: it makes memorial of the Lord’s actions, interpreting them in a broad ritual context.

With the reform of Holy Week carried out by Pius XII in 1955, the foot-washing takes place after the homily of the Mass in cena Domini [the Mass of the Lord’s Supper]. The same is the case in the Messale Romano of 1962. Here the foot-washing is done to “duodecim viros selectos” [“twelve chosen men”]. Now it is no longer a solely clerical gesture and the reference to “twelve men” make it a more explicitly mimetic rite.

This, however, is corrected by the Messale Romano of Paul VI, which no longer makes reference to the number twelve, but speaks only of “viri selecti” [“chosen men”]. The antiphons that accompany the rite of foot-washing emphasize the great theme of charity with the texts taken from John and 1 Corinthians 13 (the hymn to charity), and the rite concludes at the beginning of the offertory, with the ancient hymn Ubi caritas et amor (in the Missal of Paul VI, happily, it becomes: Ubi caritas est vera). The foot-washing is now intended to help us understand and live better the great and fundamental precept of fraternal charity which applies to all baptized men and women.

If Pope Francis has now decreed that the foot-washing is done to “qui selecti sunt ex populo Dei” [“those who are chosen from among the people of God”], we can say that it is a development that follows the logic of the rite, keeping in mind that: 1) in the Missal of Paul VI, the mimetic dimension is no longer emphasized; 2) following Vatican II, the magisterium of the Church has strongly emphasized the equality of rights and duties shared by men and women (see Gaudium et Spes 9; Evangelii Gaudium 103-104); and 3) it is no longer a rite performed by members of the clergy. In this regard, we might recall that for several years, even after Vatican II, girls were forbidden to serve at the altar. That ban was lifted as the result of an interpretation ofcanon 230, §2 of the Code of Canon Law, which states: “Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law.” The reference to “lay persons” obviously refers to both men and women.

Many times, Pope Francis has asked for expanded roles for women in the Church (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 103-104). The Pontiff’s approach to the issue of the role of women in society and in the Church is quite attentive to modernity. It is a vision in which women are equal to men in rights and duties, but complementary and different as the bearers of specific characteristics, making his own the new social paradigm of “reciprocity in equivalence and in difference.”

In this area, however, one must keep in mind the possible impediments to washing the feet of women in public in some cultures. Note therefore that the rubric “qui selecti sunt ex populo Dei” is generic (it does not carry any obligation that women are always included), and therefore the bishop can interpret it in light of the various local situations.

Barry Hudock is publisher for the parish market at Liturgical Press. He is also author of Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II (Liturgical Press, 2015), Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching (Liguori, 2013) and The Eucharistic Prayer: A User’s Guide(Liturgical Press, 2010). He and his wife Antoinette have seven children and are members of Seven Dolors Catholic Church in Albany, Minnesota.



  1. Thanks so much for this! I read it through google translate earlier, when someone posted it on a thread at the Commonweal blog, but this is much better!

  2. I also note that the relation of the rite to ordination need not be entirely excluded. In this newer legislation, the rite clearly shows that the ordained are to serve all people. With the earlier rubrics, the act of being served by Jesus seemed to somehow be tied to maleness and to priesthood, as if Jesus’s point were that priests should serve priests. With the the newer interpretation, Jesus seems to be showing what it is to be a priest: to serve all those “under” your care.

    1. @Steven Surrency:
      It seems to me that “Jesus seems to be showing what it is to be a priest” is rather missing the point of “the newer interpretation.” It’s not (primarily) about priesthood, as though the liturgy is teaching the priest, while the rest of us wait and watch, how to be a good priest. The lex orandi of this rite is teaching *all* of us what it is to live as a Christian.

  3. @Barry I don’t deny the truth of that interpretation. Nonetheless the history of the evening’s close link with ordination need not be abandoned simply because women are used as examples of who might be the recipients of service. It does seem to me that a primary emphasis of Jesus’s discourse in the Gospel of John is especially aimed at those in authority, those who would be first becoming last. So I think the night’s link to ordination is soundly intacted.

  4. Barry’s sentiment above captures the essence of ritual foot-washing. “The lex orandi of this rite is teaching *all* of us what it is to live as a Christian.”
    My doctoral work focused on the Triduum, specifically from an educational point of view, that is, the Triduum shows us how to be religious in a Roman Catholic way. Allow me to make a point by referencing my book, The Easter Triduum: A Ritual Pilgrimage. In the final chapter I explore the Triduum’s connection with justice, the call to responsibility. I write, The washing of the feet shows us what Jesus did on the night before he died. His action here is a culmination of the way he lived. Jesus’ command “Do this in memory of me,” is explicit. The proclamation of the gospel and the action that follows, the washing of the feet, captures the essence of what it means to live as eucharistic people. Washing feet spells out, in ritual language, our interdependence. It spells out the love that is at the heart of justice. Washing feet and having one’s feet washed is an authentic expression of what it means to live in right relationship. It asks, how are we Christ for others? (86-87).
    It came as no surprise to me that Pope Francis would recognize that the washing of the feet is not a re-enactment.

  5. The footwashing may be a good image for ordination, but limiting it to that meaning undermines the tradition. Washing the feet of the poor has long been a focus of the rite. The reform of Holy Week in the 1950s pushed it toward the ordination theme by limiting it to 12 men and by adopting antiphons that focused on Jesus and Peter’s interaction.

    Prior to 1950, the rite was done earlier in the day, i.e. apart from the Last Supper. In many places the antiphons included some recalling the women who washed or anointed the feet of Jesus! (Let’s try using some of them again, and see how many insist on the footwashing/ordination connection!)

  6. In addition to Donna’s suggestion of her own fine book, please allow me to suggest to those interested in this topic a new book that we’ve just published at Liturgical Press. It is Thomas O’Loughlin’s Washing Feet: Imitating the Example of Jesus in the Liturgy Today. It’s an excellent little book that offers a fascinating mix of history, theology, and pastoral/liturgical advice on the topic. O’Loughlin is professor of historical theology at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

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