Making a Mess in the Abbey Church: Foot Washing 2014

Pope Francis famously said at the last World Youth Day that he wants a mess in the Church: “What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!”

That line came to mind as we planned in the abbey for a revised foot washing this year at the Holy Thursday Mass. Drawing on the inspiration of Pope Francis’s practice of breaking the rules and washing the feet of women as well as men, Abbot John called for us to open up the rite even further and invite the entire congregation to wash one another’s feet. We monks know from his past addresses to the community that he is drawing also on his very powerful experience of foot-washing with “Bridgefolk,” the Mennonite-Catholic dialogue group.

“The Son of Man has come to serve, not to be served,” Abbot John reminded us in his homily last night. Preaching freely and without a prepared text, the abbot continued:

And he said, “Just as I have washed your feet, so you must wash each other’s feet.” That’s what he says to us. And because of that incredible action, and because of those wonderful liberating words, that’s why we’re washing each other’s feet tonight. It’s why we’ve changed our practice. We think we can have a greater sense and share in the actual teaching and words of Jesus.

The abbey church is a challenging space for this type of communal ritual, with lots of steps, and upper choir stalls and lower choir stalls, and closely-packed in rows of regimented pews. A certain Anthony Ruff suggested at chapter that we move the Mass to the neighboring Great Hall, the beautiful neo-Romanesque former Abbey Church that was deconsecrated in 1961 when the new concrete church was built. We could all be on the same level there, with no steps for guests to navigate, and we could sit on chairs to avoid the constriction of the pews. (And better acoustics for singing, he might have added but didn’t.)

“No”, schola conductor Br. Nick said in an email. “I’d like us to make a mess in the abbey church.”

And so it was.

The abbot concluded his homily with an invitation for all to join in the foot-washing, and instructions for the set-up of foot-washing stations:

Washing feet is… it can only stay solemn so long… So as we do that, there will be six stations. We really intend this to be one space. So please move up into the sanctuary, confreres [monks] come down to these stations…”

This mess in the abbey church is perhaps one of the most moving ritual I’ve been part of there. People were moving about freely, with shoes and socks all over, and the kind of funny sight of bare-footed vested concelebrants and acolytes walking around. Among us were several Mennonite Catholics who bring their previous experience of Mennonite foot-washing into their Catholic piety.

The people sang throughout – the Psallite “A new commandment,” Steve Janco’s “I give you a new commandment,” and a piece I got from the Sistine choir and adapted to English after I heard it sung at the installation of Pope Benedict XVI, “May these three remain in us.”

The spontaneous practice arose here and there of washer and washee embracing each other after the washing. So much was going on at the same time: washing, singing, hugging, wiping feet, putting on and taking off shoes, restocking the towel supply, wiping up spilled water.

I looked around and said to myself, “This is a place of love. This is a place of joy. This is a place of beauty.”

Here are some screen-capture photos of it.

As is our custom, the Liturgy of the Eucharist on this day is rather solemn. We sang Christopher Mueller’s beautiful Missa pro edition tertia Mass setting, giving all four parts to the congregation. Latin chant Agnus Dei, Pange lingua alternating in Latin and English, with polyphonic Latin Tantum ergo by the schola at the Altar of Repose.

It all fit together quite well, I thought. Our spontaneous and active involvement in the foot-washing drew us all the more deeply into the mystery and meaning of the Blessed Eucharist.

It left me grateful for many things: the free spirit of Pope Francis, the spiritual leadership of Abbot John, and of course above all, the example and teaching of Our Savior.




  1. Thanks for this inspirational account of the liturgy, Anthony. It would have been great to have been there.

  2. Sounds a whole lot better than washing each other’s hands! (As I reminded a friend who advocated this adaptation — Pilate washed his hands, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet!)

  3. Btw, I was reading my circa 1939 Holy Week prayer book of the liturgies of the week.

    Its interesting to see the pre-Pius XII mandatum ritual (which typically occurred in the afternoon of Holy Thursday, well after Mass) explained as having threefold symbolism:

    1. Discipleship
    2. Humility
    3. Purity (not just of body but of soul)

    Not a thing about Orders. Considering that the ritual historically focused on the poor (and unwashed – there was a longtime ban on bathing during Lent, so that catechumens’ heads were washed on Palm Sunday), the threefold symbolism explanation makes sense. Obviously, in cloistered/canonical religious communities, the symbolism was more intramural, but for bishops and princes, it wasn’t.

    Just some additional thoughts before we leave the topic for the season.

  4. At the womens federal prison in Kitchener on Holy Thursday, our local bishop announced at the end of his homily that he would wash the feet of anyone who came forward. After the first few shy pairs of feet sat on the seats, you could sense the anticipation as the women and staff came forward. When it was obvious that there were no more feet to be washed, a woman came forward to the bishop and deacon as they were putting the bowl and towels away and said, “but bishop, who will wash your feet”. And so he took his shoes and socks off and she washed his feet and dried them. Sometimes when we move beyond the rules, our eyes are opened and the liturgy is experienced in a way that we had never thought possible.

  5. It was great to be there. The experience of washing and being washed was humbling twice over and a powerful amplification of the Gospel.

  6. That is wonderful (especially the bit about the conversion of the skeptical Fr Anthony)! I wish I’d been there.

  7. Regarding: “Making a Mess in the Abbey Church: Foot Washing 2014”

    View from the Pew: In the Parish of which I am part, the practice of each congregant washing the feet of others is long standing. The Abbot is right and correct, it can stay solemn only for so long.

    – Wonderful to see children from small to late teens washing the feet of parents or grandparents, or of compadres.

    – The community expects this to happen each Holy Thursday.

    – Thus we catechize and evangelize one and another in serving and in being served. Thus the Command to Serve is given to each, especially to each parish minister.

  8. Looking at the photographs, I have this image in my head of the abbot going to the St John’s University coaching staff last week and saying “Friends, I need to borrow your best 10 locker room attendants to use as liturgical servers on Thursday evening. We need folks who are skilled at handling large numbers towels with a minimum of fuss, to help us and teach us in our worship.”

    And let us give thanks for the abbey and/or university laundry service, who had a larger than usual job to do once this was done.

    Thanks for passing this along, Anthony!

  9. Perhaps I have a different sense of what is “solemn,” but I find our footwashing to be extraordinarily solemn. It’s not stiff and it is not somber, but it is the transaction serious, joyful business.

  10. Thank you, Anthony, for this wonderful post about Holy Thursday at the Abbey. Perhaps we weren’t quite as messy, but since I left parish music ministry in 2009, I’ve been doing music for the Triduum at a local renewal centre that has a Holy Week Retreat. The tiny choir of elder sisters rehearses and sings, and the assembly itself sings very well. This year the retreat master and presider for the Triduum is a retired bishop. I’m not quite sure what transpired, because the piano is so located that in my sight line is an altar rail (unused), several chairs and half an altar. We had several stations set up within the body of the church, and all of a sudden at the end I noticed that the bishop was in a chair having his feet washed.

    The other remarkable experience was that the communion hymn was This Is my Body from Psallite. The assembly wouldn’t stop singing it, even when the choir had stopped. I’ve never had that happen before. Eventually they did stop, but only after several more reprises of the refrain.

    1. @Bernadette Gasslein – comment #11:

      The other remarkable experience was that the communion hymn was This Is my Body from Psallite. The assembly wouldn’t stop singing it, even when the choir had stopped. I’ve never had that happen before. Eventually they did stop, but only after several more reprises of the refrain.

      This happened to me for the first time in the late 1970s with the Taizé Adoramus te, Domine. The people, who had never heard it before, continued by themselves for several minutes while the musicians were receiving Communion (at the end of the procession). Eventually we looked at each other and said “Well, perhaps we should join them again!” So we did, and the piece (= prayer) went on for another five minutes.

      Those people had discovered, all by themselves, without anyone telling them, a real vehicle for their prayer, and they were not about to let go of it. We need to heed those lessons! Thanks, Bernadette, for reminding me. And thanks, too, for highlighting one of the things that the Psallite project was designed to do.

      1. @Paul Inwood – comment #21:

        I’ve had this experience often in various Lutheran parishes.

        In the parish in which I grew up, the assembly was accustomed not only to singing, but singing well. At the distribution of communion, the parish would sing various hymns, and the organist’s practice was to play the entire first hymn, then she would play the first stanza of the second hymn and the first chord at the beginning of the second stanza. She would then leave the bench and take her place in the procession to receive communion, and the congregation would continue singing (usually in harmony!). When she returned to the organ bench, she would find her place in the music and rejoin the song.

        And the most delightful part of all? It was obvious that when the organ returned to support the singing, the assembly had remained in tune while singing a cappella.

  11. Since some of us are becoming comfortable with this again (and comfortable admitting it!), what do y’all think about everyone washing everyone’s feet during communion? I experienced this when I was a student at St. Olaf College, and it seemed to me at the time that it further distanced this ritual from the more usual experience of it being a “tableaux” of the Gospel proclamation.

  12. Anthony, that’s a wonderful experience and you told it well.

    I’ve never had the opportunity to take part in the ritual this way, but I hope to do so someday. It seems to me that boldness is necessary. The more timid we are in implementing our rites and using the fullness of their symbols, the less effective they are.

    What makes this incarnation of foot washing so powerful I suspect is the sign gains contemporaneity. It makes sense. The mysteries we celebrate as Christians are not a tableau but a living reality that stands as sign and symbol of the life we have been given in Christ. To rediscover that is to unlock the power of the sign itself.

  13. Thank God, thank God, for Abbot John. Reading this was the next best thing to being there. If I were a bird…

  14. Fr. Anthony, I do not wish to disparage you or your community. Still, I have severe doubts that a “mandatum for all present”, or even the more usual observance of the mandatum, is often wise outside of very specific contexts. Pope Francis has celebrated the mandatum, but in a well-planned location and context.

    Notably, Pope Francis’s mandata are not televised. His Holy Thursday Masses are occluded from all who are not in attendance for good reason. I believe that the decision to not televise Pope Francis’s Holy Thursday Mass is not a coincidence. Quite the opposite — perhaps Pope Francis specifically desires to remind us that true charity and compassion is to be given and received personally, and not with the approbation of electronic eyes.

    If I were asked to participate in a mandatum, I would decline the offer courteously but firmly. Participation in a mandatum, even one where all persons are able to wash and be washed, might be for some persons a temptation for a certain inward pride which desires to be seen externally. Perhaps some persons are mature enough to fully resist a narcissistic understanding of the ritual, but I am not one of them. I would say that participation in the mandatum requires an exceptional spiritual maturity as well as prayerful preparation for participation. This spiritual maturity realizes that participation in the ritual serves principally to emphasize the day in which the Eucharist itself is adored and also conceptually worshiped in propers and hymns.

      1. @Barry Moorhead – comment #26:

        Thnak you Barry for your correction. It would have been better for me to consider the ramifications of the changing theology and liturgy of the mandatum without comment.

  15. Jordan, may I suggest that should you be invited to have your feet washed that you reflect quietly on the initial refusal by Simon Peter and then pray inwardly “Lord I am not worthy that you should wash my feet, but for a place in your kingdom I humbly submit.”

    I am very perplexed from time to time that those of a more traditional inclination seem never to go back beyond the fourth century when considering how Christians celebrated the Breaking of the Bread before the influence of the Imperium took hold. I would wager that while it no doubt was ordered that it was considerably less formal prior to their assemblies being overrun by baptized pagans. Just a thought while recalling that Christ came to make me and you and all things NEW.

  16. Footwashing makes people crazy; that’s the basic lesson I’ve learned being around all of this since the late 80s. I remember in my home parish how one pastor was very insistent about having twelve people but was happy to draw them from a cross-section of the parish: old and young, rich and poor, men and women, various races, etc. The next pastor was less insistent on the number but insisted on men. The one following didn’t. Each time people got bent out of shape for various reasons. Later on, as I entered seminary and ultimately religious life I experienced footwashing in a variety of contexts: the whole congregation stationally, designated washers or the washer-washee swap, the prior washing feet outside of the liturgy, and other paraliturgical practices, sometimes with Mennonites as mentioned above. Each time it meant something and it meant something profound, but it also meant something different–not necessarily mutually exclusive, but different.

    It seems to me that footwashing is the perfect case-in-point to show the multivalency of symbols. It meant one thing when done by Ambrose as part of the Initiation rites, it means a different thing if a bishop does it to his priests, and it means a different thing still when a whole congregation performs the rite on one another.

    It seems to me that the source of our anxieties over the practice stem from a worry that either: A) The values at play really are mutually exclusive; or B) Maybe my way isn’t the best, only, or orthodox (in the most general sense) reading of it.

    I think that Fr. Jack is right. We need to consider what’s behind our refusal to engage footwashing under whatever circumstances. But it’s telling, isn’t it, that Christ’s first command here is to allow one’s self to be washed. Only then can one wash another. Nemo dat quod non habet?

  17. I just looked at the photos that were put online. WHAT A WONDERFUL, AWESOME HOLY MESS!!!

    Would that every liturgical assembly would do this each Maundy Thursday!!

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