Viewpoint: Holy Thursday Washing of Women’s Feet Now Official

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.


  1. A couple of thoughts and experiences in the seminary – too often, rectors make the decision to use Holy Thursday as an occasion to celebrate priestly ordination rather than the actual liturgical celebration. Suggest strongly that seminarians need to be active and involved in parish or small group (e.g. prison, social agency to a specific population or need) Holy Thursday liturgies

  2. It really seems quite simple to me. Only wash the feet of those who may come to communion. And if one isn’t going to offer the chalice, they can probably shorten the Eucharistic Prayer to reflect accordingly.

  3. The elaboration on mimetic/anamnetic is illustrative. In modern practice, I can think of the “editing” of St Paul into “brothers and sisters” vs the “replay” of the Epistle reading as 1st century communication. The “reinterpretation” of the Suffering Servant as Jesus instead of Israel.

    Questions come to mind. Which accomplishes the mission of Christ more fruitfully? Telling an old story so as to elicit nods of admiration, memory, or (horrors!) mere entertainment? Or engaging in a ritual action so as to enter into the moment and find fruit for the Christian life today? What would it take for discipleship to be more strongly rooted in today’s believer? A mimetic re-creation of a past event, or an anamnetic encounter with Christ’s spirit of service? Perhaps a connection to the literal John 13:15? What does it take for us to take a mandate of the Lord more seriously?

    1. @Todd Flowerday:

      Todd: “ Or engaging in a ritual action so as to enter into the moment and find fruit for the Christian life today?

      There is no moment. There is no today. We merely live our lives at a turn of the “wheel” of the liturgical life of the Church.

      The current turn of the liturgical wheel is marked by a studied didacticism, a heavy stress on humanism and humanistic participation, and a deprecation of artistic forms, especially those in our sacral language, cultivated for aesthetic purposes alone. We cannot think that these distinguishing marks are permanent. These marks are never a triumph of our handiwork. No person may suppose that the current turn is a masterstroke which will last for more than a handful of saecula. Trent was but a turn of the wheel; so the same will be of our age.

  4. Years ago – we used to hold a Passover Supper before the Holy Thursday celebration. It was part education; part tying together our OT memory with what we actually make present in our liturgy. Guess that gets to the difference?

  5. Can I just point out that the hyperbole is a bit much and doesn’t logically follow? For one thing,even if one banned female ministers and servers, there would still be male ministers and servers to offer the chalice to the people. For another, if extraordinary ministers are not used, nothing prevents the ordinary ministers distributing under both kinds (even by intinction…and yes, I know the symbolic value of drinking). The problem there is that no one would want to spend the extra time involved. All of this of course presupposing a largely Anglo-European-centric focus, given that in the majority of Catholic churches around the world, Holy Communion is still not distributed under both kinds with any regularity.

    For another thing, it is perfectly possible that one could have a negative view of female liturgical ministry at the altar while being fine with the washing of the feet, which is not necessarily seen in the same light. In fact, I know some conservative pastors who are just glad that they now have an excuse not to fight this battle on Holy Thursday, since the priestly ordination connotations (such as could be said to be extracted) were not easily discernible by many.

    As for the omission of the rite by some of the more conservative – people are doing what people do best i.e. ‘find a way to avoid doing what I don’t want to do’. Omission/para-liturgical rite was recommended for years for priests who didn’t want to ‘break the rules’ but wanted to wash the feet of both men and women. I remember reading articles in liturgical journals on how it shouldn’t have been inserted in the first place in the 1955 reforms, it was too mimetic, it broke the flow of the liturgy, etc., etc. The conservative voices of course (or at least, many of them) were all for it. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and unsurprisingly, roles have reversed for the impassioned. The rest of us just keep plodding on.

  6. I find interesting that Msgr. Mannion has given such a positive endorsment of law following [local, though widespread] custom: “This is a welcome development given that many bishops and pastors had been for years washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday.”

    Of course many, myself included, have believed the only way this rite can be performed according to its purpose is to include women (at least in a mixed gender community), and so one could argue that this decree only repairs an inconsistancy in the liturgical law.

    Nevertheless, Msgr.’s endorsment of custom, in and of itself, providing a rationale for change in law, is interesting. Could it point to future developments? Or is this an isolated event?

  7. The overwhelming percentage of people who see this move as an affirmation of reality begs the question “why the fuss?” If the washing of the feet was an instrumental sign by Christ for the institution of the priesthood, then the Church needs to take a serious look as to why the majority of “foot washing equivalent” activity in the Church is performed by women.

    Not only repair of an inconsistency in liturgical law but an affirmation of integrity.

  8. It’s just like other things — communion in the hand, female altar servers. First there was disobedience; then a change in law. The hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture rolls on.

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski:

      Precisely the opposite of discontinuity. That is how law changes and evolves. Edict catches up with practice. We saw this happen with liturgies in the vernacular, Communion in the hand, Communion under both kinds, female lectors, female altar servers…. Each of those was found not to be objectively sinful after all, and so was authorized and permitted.

      If you want to cite a change in the law as a reward for disobedience, look no further than Summorum Pontificum.

      1. @Paul Inwood:
        No, that is NOT how law changes. Law often time changes through custom contra legem, but one needs the legal ability to establish the custom. The custom cannot simply be established by simple disobedience.

        Summorum Pontificum was in response to immemorial custom and the fact the Paul VI had never attempted to abrogate the rite, but simply asserted it was finished.

      2. @Todd Orbitz:
        Todd, I think this is a very selective reading of history, and your categories would be anachronistic for most of church history.

        There is much discussion about whether Paul VI abrogated – I think he did. The arguments for that are strong (see the article in Worship a bit ago), and these arguments are not lessened by the fact that a commission of cardinals asserted otherwise.


      3. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        The older rite was abrogated (in the technical, canonical sense) by the formula: “all things to the contrary notwithstanding.” That is the typical abrogation formula used when new liturgical texts are promulgated, replacing previous texts. And that is clearly what the Council Fathers intended in Sacrosanctum concilium.

        It was not ‘abrogated’ in the non-technical sense in that it continued to be used in exceptional circumstances.

        If it was not abrogated in the technical, canonical sense then indults would not have been required for its use.

      4. @Frank Agnoli:

        Yes, and I repeat what I have posted here before from Pierre Jounel:

        What would you say to those people who don’t want to know the Missal of Paul VI, and to those who, while respecting it, regret that it was imposed to the exclusion of the Tridentine Missal?

        “I would say to them that they use computers, that they live with the instruments of the culture of their time, and that they have no reason to get stuck on the 1570 date when the Missal of Pius V was promulgated. Why should the liturgy be frozen then, when it had been periodically renewed up to that date? These people lack historical knowledge. Msgr Lefebvre was absolutely convinced that the ancient formula for Confirmation goes back to the time of the apostles, when in fact it only dates back to the 13th century.”

        Jounel then goes on to demonstrate how Paul VI followed exactly the same procedure with his Missal as Pius V had with the Missal and Breviary in 1570, Clement VIII in 1595 with the Roman Pontifical, Pius X with the psalter of the Breviary in 1911, and Pius XII with the Holy Week rites in 1955. In all these cases, the previous usage was abrogated and replaced by the new. This is the Church’s constant practice.

      5. @Paul Inwood:
        I think the problem with your argument is that it sets up a sort of straw man traditionalist. They are just “stuck on that date” (or rather, stuck in the past, don’t like change, and are ignorant). I often find the biggest problem with those opposed to the continued use of the old Mass is an unwillingness to actually engage or understand traditionalist opinions on the matter.

        Perhaps the biggest theme of traditionalist thought is the opinion that the revised Mass does not accomplish the goals of liturgy the way the older form does. You don’t have to agree with that, but a recognition that THAT is the the real issue would go a long way towards not making out-of-touch statements regarding traditionalist thought. It’s a bit like how they thought it would be a good idea to wire houses with aluminum in the 70s, only to find it was a fire hazard or that touch screens in cars are actually not as good as the control dials they replaced – progress moves in a zig-zag sometimes, rather than in a straight line (as those who fully support the liturgical reform often seem to think with their “we can never go back! Never!” attitude).

      6. @Jack Wayne:
        Your first paragraph is important. There is a simple lack of accompaniment between people across the divide.

        As for Alan’s question, the goals are simply stated in SC 7: the worship of God, and the sanctification of the people. Do traditionalists accept Church teaching in this regard? If not, what refinement would you suggest?

        Liturgy is not an end, but a means to get there. The renewed Mass seems to involve the worship of God and the saintly formation of Christians. When this doesn’t happen, it seems less a function of the rite or style, and more the failures of clergy, musicians, bishops, and others.

      7. @Todd Orbitz:
        SP was a legal finesse designed to make pontificate muscle look more, well, svelte.

        Thought experiment: Have any of the missal/ordo editions between 1962 and 2011 been “abrogated” in the sense that the 1962 missal edition was *not* “abrogated” according to SP? What about pre-1962 editions? Might be solace for folks who prefer to use the edition of the missal from before 2011….

    2. @Peter Kwasniewski:

      Peter, did you play with kaleidoscopes as a child? I had quite a few kaleidoscopes and enjoyed them quite a bit. A kaleidoscope’s prisms can’t turn themselves. The kaleidoscope requires a hand to turn the knob which in turn shuffles the prisms or prismatic distorters. As I mentioned in #6, all the faithful turn with the inevitable “wheel” of liturgical evolution. Perhaps many of us have gripes about how this turn has been executed for us, and it was not wise for me in #6 to indulge in my gripes as these gripes are irrelevant. Still, I repeat: we can change our perspective on the liturgical wheel at this very moment, even if fundamentally we are beholden to the passage of the wheel. To say that the liturgical “wheel” is prismatic implies that there are layers to its unfolding. It is not a plano situation by any means: the passage of time is layered over with expectations, morality, ethics, and justice.

      Ed Nash at #8 and Paul Inwood at #11 together complete my kaleidoscopic metaphor: we the faithful can move the kaleidoscope to reflect our understanding of human dignity and justice. Under the view of most people today, women are ontologically and epistemologically equal to men. Peter, you may debate this and I respect your exposition, but for the majority of people allowing women a seat at the mandatum is a reflection of the moral and ethical understanding of our day. This sense we interlace onto the cyclical evolution of liturgy. Did not the feudal structure of Tridentine liturgy reflect the social understanding of that day (or a day that passed with the rise of nation-states and early modernity)? Then why should we not recognize the moral and ethical imperatives of our day?

    3. @Peter Kwasniewski:
      I think the whole continuity/discontinuity thing has exhausted itself as a useful analytical tool. In the hands of Benedict XVI there was nuance, and acknowledgement that there were ruptures within larger continuities – but already in his formulation it seemed he was trying to downplay rupture and critique it and limit it.

      It would be more helpful to stop pushing the continuity agenda as an ideology, acting as if discontinuity and rupture are bad things, and start instead with the Second Vatican Council. How much rupture and discontinuity is implicit and explicit in SC? It’d be helpful to admit that there is a good deal of rupture there – so let’s work toward everyone accepting that and getting on the same page with acceptance of the rites reformed according to Vatican II.

      For Catholics who accept Vatican II, it would be more useful to explore just what is continuous between the unreformed and the reformed rites (there is much), and what is discontinuous (much of this too – as the Council called for).



    4. @Peter Kwasniewski:
      You speak of discontinuity and rupture as if they were bad things. They are the essence of conversion, and the Bible and lives of saints are filled with examples of them.

      As for, “There is no moment. There is no today. We merely live our lives at a turn of the “wheel” of the liturgical life of the Church.”

      An interesting premise. But it presumes that the liturgy itself is an end, and on this Earth, I doubt this is so. The Lord seemed to have a reason for instituting this gesture. During and after open foot-washing, I have heard the testimony of people who participated. It would seem that the impact of liturgy on life is not really negligible. It does have an effect on the lived life of a disciple.

  9. View from the Pew
    Regarding: “Anamnetic rites work differently. They do not neglect the reference to the past, but move to being gestures focused on the present.”
    – Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John each note that ‘disciples’ were involved in the Passover prep, and meal. John especially notes that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples.
    – Elsewhere in Christian scriptures we see that women are among the disciples.
    – The command to serve to the disciples then is now recalled and made present for Jesus’ disciples: the baptised men and women, and laic and cleric ministers.

  10. Is this evolution like the Mosaic law, which was softened due to the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts? “… But from the beginning it was not so…”

    It seems to me that this method emboldens the faithful to push at the bounds of the law, because they know that if they do it enough, the law will give.

    1. @Agman Austerhauser:
      This is a very cynical reading of people’s motives, as if movement for change or development is always falling from an ideal caused by hardness of heart. As a paradigm for understanding how the liturgy has developed for 2,000 years, it fails miserably. Believe it or not, some of the people changing things are – some of the time at least – inspired by good motives and perhaps even moved by the Spirit of God.


  11. At the risk of becoming recursive, it should be noted that limiting/restricting the meaning of the Mandatum ritual to the institution of Holy Orders is itself a relatively recent discontinuity in this broader history of the ritual. Reverse-engineering that reading into its earlier history rests on other circumstances that are not doctrinal (limiting the sanctuary – where, it should be noted, the ritual now does *not* necessarily occur even during the liturgy – to males; a variety of historical, cultural and cultic issues involving men touching women’s feet; the gradual shrinking of the preconciliar Triduum liturgies during the medieval era and subsequent rationalization; et cet.).

  12. While my first reaction was relief – that we no longer have to fight this battle every year – on second thought it occurred to me that the issue may now become even more contentious. The language (to my understanding) does not REQUIRE women to be included, and therefore essentially what we have is that the selection is left to the pastoral judgment of each individual pastor or bishop. It will be interesting to see how this plays out – but those pastors who choose to continue all-male foot washing (which, again, is still their right) will be seen to be making a highly personal and politically-charged statement; now with no GIRM language to refer back to. In some places, at least, there may be even more angst than before about the foot-washing.

    1. @Jared Ostermann:
      I tend to see this as all to the good. Now, instead of simply pointing to the rule, pastors who want to restrict the washing of feet to men alone will actually have to offer reasons (or say, “I said it and that settles it”–and good luck with that).

  13. Thanks for this post–I was also struck by the Decree on women’s being included in footwashing. I appreciated in particular your point regarding a mimetic versus anamnetic understanding of the rite. To that end–Pope Francis’ explicit including of women reminds us to remember the wider symbolic value of this event in John 13. Immediately after washing their feet (even Peter’s, who, of course, first objects vociferously!), Jesus instructs his disciples: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

    All Christians are called to love.

    In the present, the footwashing ritual brings all Christians into this moment–inviting them to experience Christ through liturgical ritual, but also preparing them to bring this reality of love and service to the world.

  14. Yes, the language of “disobedience” assigns motives that are not helpful and really unfounded. Those who pushed for, to quote Paul Inwood, “liturgies in the vernacular, Communion in the hand, Communion under both kinds, female lectors, female altar servers,” like those who washed the feet of women, were not “disobedient,” but obedient to the ecclesiology and liturgical theology of Vatican II which underlie the rubrics. Rubrics are not the beginning and the end, to be slavishly followed, as if they are some kind of culmination of divine revelation (and then only as far as 2002, or 1962, or 1955, or 1911, or….) Rather, our liturgical practice must first be situated in and disclose the theology of the Church as we have it from the council. That’s what the reform was all about. The quick acceptance by Rome of the above practices argues for their accord with the principals of the liturgical reform and against their being acts of “disobedience.”

    What’s so confounding about Summorum pontificum is that it’s an acceptance and promotion of liturgical practice that is purposefully not in accord with the Constitution on the Liturgy. I would say “disobedient,” but who am I to judge.

    I do hope that the decree on foot washing is a sign of a Rome’s move away from the rubricist attitudes respresented by, say, Redemptionis sacramentum and Liturgiam authenticam, and a return to more positive attitude within the CDW toward local developments in the liturgy.

  15. Forget the niceties. In our parish in the Midlands of England there will be no foot washing at all.
    It would appear to be too much of a risk. When will we ever learn?
    Read Professor Tom O’Loughlin’s informative book “Washing Feet”, well worth it.

  16. Ha….guess I hit a nerve. I could care less what any Council of Cardinal said regarding the former route not being abrogated. I care about the PCILT and the decisions of the Signatura, which were entirely consistent for forty years.

    When priests appealed suspensions, because they insisted on utilizing the older rite, the Signatura upheld their right to do so because it was not abrogated. They punished the Priests for not obeying their bishops however, usually with respect to general resistance and not the torture itself.

  17. Does the wording of the decree allow for an interpretation that says all present at the ritual can have their feet washed, not by the presider but by other members of the congregation?

  18. A great discussion! Talk here of liturgy seems to seek to follow hard and fast rules. Is the liturgy for humankind or humankind for liturgy? Recall Jesus and His disciples were celebrating (possibly) the Passover meal. The meal had it’s own rubrics. The meal was eaten at a particular day and time, the menu requirements, the participants, the Hebrew scripture readings (retelling of the flight from Egypt), the order in which the meal was eaten, etc.. According to the Gospel of John, the only one with this passage, Jesus changed the rubrics by adding an element that was a “teachable moment.” Knowing his time grew short, he took this opportunity to impress upon his disciples what it meant to follow in his footsteps carrying on the work he had begun (ushering in the Kingdom of God). If the Thursday liturgy doesn’t send a similar message to Christ’s disciples today then it has lost its meaning and significance. If the footwashing is omitted what is the value of the liturgy? Or should it be replaced with another symbolic gesture pointing toward mutual service?

    Not being, nor wanting to be, a liturgist, and following the discussion “should we or shouldn’t we, and if we should, how should we do it” is rather boring. The entire message Christ meant to give to his disciples has been lost in the rigidity of liturgical form – especially, as I see it, the form of only men – and even then, at one time, limited to men who were either in, or along the path of holy orders. It is now an “open secret” that Jesus Christ did not found a church and the footwashing is not the institution of a priesthood. All we have to do is look at the examples of Judas who was was soon to betray him, and Peter who was soon to deny him. Furthermore, we have the later addition of Matthias, who replaced Judas, and of course, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles.

    The bottom line is the message should fit the liturgy. The question remains, “what message does one want to convey?”

  19. Peter Kwasniewski : It’s just like other things — communion in the hand, female altar servers. First there was disobedience; then a change in law. The hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture rolls on.

    A hermeneutic of discontinuity looks at something and says here is a discontinuity. “We have never washed the feet of women before.”
    A hermeneutic of continuity looks at something and sees it as a continuity. “We have always washed people’s feet, (at least since 1955).”
    A hermeneutic of reform sees a discontinuity and accepts it as part of the continuing growth of the Church. “This change helps the Church to better express the message of Jesus.”

    I think Peter here is describing the process of reform, of change being accepted as beneficial to the Church. His use of terms like disobedience and discontinuity makes me doubt that is what he intends to say, but I cannot really make sense of his comment.

    One other note on this. The footwashing is part of the Holy Thursday service, even if only by the reading of the gospel account of it. The ritual is not obligatory, but the gospel is, and the priest is responsible for uncovering the message of that gospel. The ritual seems like an obvious help to accomplishing that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *