by M. Francis Mannion
At the behest of Pope Francis, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) issued on January 6 a Decree stating that all members of the people of God—including women—may have their feet washed during the evening liturgy of Holy Thursday. This decision was no doubt an outcome of the practice of Pope Francis when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and since he became Pope.
This is a welcome development given that many bishops and pastors had been for years washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday. The January 6 Decree clarifies the lingering ambiguity about the legitimacy of the practice. Furthermore, the Vatican had been for some time giving mixed signals on the matter. When Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston asked the CDWDS a couple of years ago about the practice of the washing of women’s feet, he received an unofficial positive answer; meanwhile the official position of excluding women seemed favored.
I have a few observations and questions about this liturgical development. For one thing, the Decree and its Commentary allow pastors to forego the ritual of the foot-washing altogether when it states, “The washing of feet is not obligatory during the Holy Thursday Mass.” Furthermore, “It is for pastors to evaluate its desirability according to the pastoral considerations and circumstances that exist.” No doubt some pastors may grab on to the option to omit the ceremony altogether for no other reason than a “conservative” aversion to having women involved in liturgical ceremonial.
Are there ever circumstances when men can only have their feet washed? Possibly in seminaries, male religious houses, and men’s prisons. But I cannot imagine that there would not be some women present who could be included among those whose feet are washed. (The same logic would apply to in reverse to convents and women’s religious communities.)
The Commentary on the Decree (written by Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the CDWDS) makes a very important distinction between mimetic and anamnetic rituals. Mimetic gestures view the foot-washing like a play, as, for instance, the Oberammergau Passion Play in South Germany performed every ten years. Here the foot-washing is understood to be a repetition of what Jesus did on the first Holy Thursday. The focus is on the past and not so much in the present.
Anamnetic rites work differently. They do not neglect the reference to the past, but move to being gestures focused on the present. By the power of the Holy Spirit, they make present the risen and glorified Lord. The pastor does not, then, “play” Jesus of Nazareth but represents the risen Christ in the Church today. He washes the feet of a number of people (not necessarily twelve) as a sign of his present commitment to his people.
Crucial in this whole matter is the formation of seminarians. Those who know seminarians today tell me that many seek to return to an imagined “traditional” understanding of the liturgy and its practice. This would mean excluding girls and women from ministry at the altar and from the role of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion—which would then mean the omission of the chalice for the people completely.
The matter of the washing of feet of women is likely to be omitted on Holy Thursday by a negative attitude toward women in the liturgy generally. Seminary faculty should make known to their seminarians in a positive spirit the fundamental contents of the recent Decree and the fundamental theology underlying it.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.