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Pope Francis Allows Women to Holy Thursday Foot-Washing

Pope Francis made the news, and raised eyebrows, when he washed the feet of women, including non-Christians, at Holy Thursday Mass immediately after being elected pope – not least because the rules only allowed for the feet of men to be washed. Now the Holy See has issued a decree making official what he – and many other priests around the world – had been already doing in contravention of the official rule.

Pope Francis also wrote a letter to Cardinal Sarah regarding the changes.

As NCR reports, the previous wording about “men” is to be changed to this:

Those chosen from among the People of God are accompanied by the ministers’ (and consequently in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum No. 301 and No. 299 b referring to the seats for the chosen men, so that pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God. This group may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople.

Look for much to be made of two words in that passage: “may” and “ideally.” Note that women may be included, but there is no obligation to do so and one may still include only males. But note that ideally the group should be diverse and representative of the People of God. But does “ideally” only refer to the second part of the sentence, and not the first part saying that women may be admitted?

And then there is “People of God.” Does that include only Christians? Only Catholics? Or all God’s people of any religion (including Islam)?

I also expect much discussion about how significant the change is. Is this a real turning point and a sign of significant movement at high official levels? Or is too much being made about a rather insignificant matter? Either view has merits, whatever side of the issue you’re on.

And of course there is the important question of how liturgical law functions and how it should be interpreted. One school of thought says that it may well be legitimate to wash women’s feet – if the rules allow for it. According to this line of thinking, Pope Francis should have changed the rule first, and then changed the practice. Otherwise he’s modeling a cavalier attitude toward the Church’s norms.

But on the other side, some people would say that Francis’s violation of a liturgical rule for pastoral reasons was itself a good model for the whole church. It sent the right kind of message to those who are overly legalistic and think that the Roman Curia ought to micromanage every liturgical practice in the whole world.

For those people, we’ve now lost the sign value of a Pope admirably violating the rules for pastoral reasons. With today’s decree, rules and practice will again be in sync when Francis celebrates Holy Thursday.

Be that as it may, I’m pretty sure Francis has already made clear in many ways what he thinks about people who put rules above all else.



  1. NB:

    (1) Pope Francis did not write a letter confirming the decree. He wrote a letter to Cardinal Sarah on December 20 requesting the change to the rubric in the Roman Missal.

    (2) The decree has been issued not by Francis himself but by the Congregation over the signatures of Cardinal Sarah and Archbishop Roche.

    The decree follows Francis’s request for “an adequate explanation” of the meaning of the rite, but it is interesting to see how Francis’s intent has perhaps already been mediated. He asked that pastors should be able to select participants from the entire membership of the People of God, but the decree from the Congregation specifies a “small group” (parvum coetum in the Latin, gruppetto in the Italian translation), which might be viewed as an attempt to control those celebrations where a large number, or even all, of those present have their feet washed.

    However, also notable is the spelling-out that the group can include both men and women, young and old, the healthy and the sick, and clergy, consecrated religious and lay people.

    There will be much rejoicing at this news.

  2. This is great news. Hopefully, Pope Francis will authorize the Congregation to issue a decree that allows for lay men and women to preach during the Liturgy of the Word.

  3. This issue has caused enormous pain and division in my parish, where the local ordinary chose to enforce the letter of the law in his diocese a few years ago, upending decades of practice in most of the parishes. It *sounds* from the summaries I’ve read that this is new rule does not depend on the discretion of local bishops, is that correct?

    1. @Ellen Joyce:
      I eagerly await a response from such ordinaries (e.g. Madison, WI), to see what they allow/encourage.

      I suspect they’ll find ways to still pick 12 men at Masses at which they preside.

      1. @Timothy McCormick:
        From Madison:

        He gives 3 options:
        1. Include women.
        2. Don’t include women.
        3. Omit the rite.

        That pretty much covers all of the bases.

        But the most interesting comment is his final sentence. Where he states *HIS* theory about what the “central focus of the Holy Thursday liturgy” should be. I’ll give you “The Lord” and I’ll give you “the Eucharist”. Other topics are up for debate.

  4. Did you all notice WHEN the pope wrote that letter to Cardinal Sarah? December 20, 2014 — that is more than a year ago.

    1. @Rober Mickens:

      Bob, if that is really the case, it is scandalous. I had assumed that 2014 was a typo for 2015. Rather like Rober is a typo for Robert in your name as rendered here!

  5. Long overdue, but still very welcome news. The emphasis on humble service is the way to go. Bravo Pope Francis!

  6. This will only be troubling to those who carried faulty understandings of the meaning of the rite (e.g. it’s about priesthood) — or the meaning of liturgy in general (it’s a re-enactment) — in the first place. Perhaps the change will offer a good opportunity for some sound catechesis and faith formation. One can hope.

  7. My main observation about this is that there are lots and lots of us that had no idea there was any such rule before because women have had their feet washed in parishes I have been in for at least the past 30 years.

  8. It would be interesting to know why Pope Francis thought it necessary to change the rule. He has seemed to take a flexible approach to following rules and to suggest that others should do the same. So does he wish the amended rule to be treated in a similarly casual manner?
    My guess is that he is beginning to see that undermining some rules risks undermining others that he wishes to be enforced.
    Does anyone have a better guess?

    1. @Peter Haydon:
      Could be, but I doubt it. He’s a master at doing a bit of this, a bit of that. He plays to all sides. And challenges (sometimes insults) all sides.
      And at each twitch of the Holy Father, one side (or the other) says this one is a definitive indication of what he’s now really about.
      Reading MondayVatican, I get whiplash trying to follow the complicate gyrations that Francis has supposedly gone through, constantly changing course, in the tortured over-interpretations of that author.
      I see no evidence that he’s changed course or repented of anything, to be honest.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        Very good take on PF, Fr. Anthony, especially as regarding MondayVatican. I find that to really understand Francis, you need to read all of what he writes and delivers, especially his homilies, general audience catechesis and major speeches such as he gave last Sunday at the Synagogue in Rome and in the Fall in Florence. His “Daily Meditiations”, as the Vatican calls his daily homilies from Casa Santa Marta, are especially rich for understanding him. You can almost sense his thoughts on something unfolding for the “long haul”, so to speak, in those daily homilies. You also need to watch him as he goes about doing what he does, touching people and talking to people. I learned Italian simply to translate his words since it takes the Vatican days to get English translations posted and then the translattions are suspect, with entire sentences left out and phrasing changed dramatically. I have it from a very good source that the Vatican has extremely poor English translators….but then we all know that from what we are subjected to at Mass every Sunday.

      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        Thank you Father.
        As you say it is hard to guess what he is up to. I hope that he is learning how to be an effective pope (the alternative that he is learning nothing would be discouraging) but he does give us challenges. I am reminded of Admiral Tryon’s TA system of signalling which left his subordinates to guess what he meant. The sinking of HMS Victoria in 1893 was one consequence.

  9. Certainly there is nothing controversial about women participating in the mandatum. The reformation of the rites of the Latin Rite also includes periodic resignification of the liturgies. As a child I was told that twelve men (viri) were chosen each year for the mandatum to represent the twelve apostles. A reinterpretation of the mandatum as a symbolic ritual of Christ’s loving service is a fitting evolution.

    What I am concerned about is the way persons are selected to participate in the mandatum. When I was a teenager, I went to a parish where the pastor chose the participants. Almost always he would choose half the parish council, and the other half catechists, a youth minister, or people who tended to volunteer for everything. I doubt this is the best option. This selection method might strike some as favoritism or a reward. This is, in my opinion, not in keeping with the symbolism and intent of the mandatum.

    Perhaps this selection method might be better. Any person, parishioner or not, may place a piece of paper in the collection plate with their name and phone number/email (optional). Pencils and paper will be provided in the hymnal holders. The pastor will choose mandatum participants by lottery. Hopefully those who did not provide contact information are known to an usher perhaps and can be discretely notified. Those selected at random will be asked to not submit again for another five years.

    In this manner, a greater cross-section of the community participates. Also, accusations of favoritism would be obviated.

  10. The rubrics in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper which indicated 12 men appear to have taken the view that the Mandatum is about apostolate/priesthood, and was a sort of pageant of Christ’s gesture at the Supper.

    The alternative view was that the Mandatum is a rite or even a sacramental of service and charity.

    In monastic circles a sort of mandatum is employed as a gesture of welcome for guests and strangers.

    The obvious place to look for any ‘steer’ on what the Mandatum means is the rite itself. The antiphons provided in the rite are clearly in favour of the alternative view.

    The Pope’s changing of practice is therefore to be commended. Also, he has simply brought the rules into line with what I have always experienced as the prevailing practice.

    Alan Griffiths.

  11. Since most parishes have already included women in the mandatum for many years, I don’t think this ruling will have much effect outside of liturgy blogs and comboxes.

    But perhaps this is a good opportunity to examine the people that our communities choose for this rite. I have typically seen a cross-section of parish council members, active volunteers, representatives of parish organizations, and perhaps someone from the confirmation and first communion classes. Even with this variety, all of these people are Insiders: card-carrying members of the parish.

    What if instead we looked to Outsiders? People who are sick or dying, people who are homeless, people who are not Catholic or not Christian? People in prisons or in nursing homes or in mental institutions? People who are forgotten or excluded or looked down upon?

    I’ve been mulling this idea since yesterday, though I’m not sure how it would work in practice. I’d appreciate any insights on how this could be carried out.

    1. @Scott Pluff:

      What if instead we looked to Outsiders?

      Scott, I certainly agree. In fact I would say that a parish must actively solicit “outsiders” for every lay liturgical role. Again, this inclusion must be sought with the utmost discretion, especially with the most marginalized members of our communities. Even then, clergy and laity alike must be ready for rejection. No one should question why a person declines participation in the mandatum or any other liturgy.

      Were I a pastor, I would be sorely tempted to omit the mandatum, or at the least hold the ceremony outside of Mass (at Vespers?). I respect that many PTB readers would be disturbed if their pastor unilaterally ended the mandatum or even offered to hold a referendum on its continuance. For many, the mandatum is an especially cherished rite, even if its performance occasionally creates a divisive insider/outsider destabilizing dynamic.

      Unfortunately a small number of people do not view positions of service as an opportunity for contrite humility. Once, when at daily Mass, I remember a EMHC who, upon not being handed a cup to administer, loudly cried “but it’s my turn!” I’ve seen EMHC’s dash to the tabernacle to be the first to retrieve a ciborium. These instances are rare; furthermore, PTB readers are familiar with my unease with the laity administering communion. In any event, I have tried to moderate my views over the years. However, if any person, lay or clergy, cannot serve with humility, then there is the question of whether or not that person should serve. Similarly, should the mandatum become a point of community antagonism, then perhaps the liturgy is not suitable for the parish.

  12. Our solution since for ever is for the priest to wash the feet of that years confirmation candidates who then immediately go and wash the feet of a member of their family. It’s about the sign.

  13. Speaking as the person who, for 15 years, recruited people for the foot washing, I think if you asked people to put their name in a lottery you’d have about 4 names to choose from. Despite weeks of seeking volunteers who were “outsiders” I usually ended up with a lot of familiar faces because they were the ones who I could call in desparation the last few days before Holy Week.

    Now that I’m retired, I live in a parish where foot washing is offered to the entire congregation, and I think most take part. It’s a different story here.

    So, take it a little easy on pastors who seem to depend on the same old folks. Especially in the land of the “frozen chosen” northeast.

  14. We always start with the Elect…that gets us 3-4 people each year.

    It also helps that our church share its space with a large transitional housing facility: Not hard to get another 4-5 “outsiders” when 10% of your parishioners are recently homeless. I suspect parishes that have robust social justice ministries would have no trouble finding a dozen or so people for feet washing.

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