Oh my. Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship (the Vatican’s liturgy office), has clarified that priests do not have to wash the feet of women on Holy Thursday.
Some priests and bishops complained, it seems, and got the concession they wanted. Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider from Kasakhstan, for example, said that he could not in good conscience wash women’s feet on Holy Thursday.
And Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, founder of Ignatius Press, says this:
[T]he prototype is, of course, the Last Supper where Jesus washes the feet, not of his disciples, not of people chosen randomly from the crowds, but of the Apostles, and tells them they should wash ‘one another’s’ feet. That is, ordained ministers should follow this example among themselves.
So there you have it. I take it that Jesus ordained the Apostles to the episcopate before he washed their feet, though I don’t find this as clear as one would want it in John 12 or earlier. (The foot-washing is in John 13.) But wouldn’t Fr. Fessio’s argument mean that only bishops should do the foot-washing, and only of other bishops? This leaves one wondering about priests washing the feet of laymen. Or for that matter, popes washing the feet of priests, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI did.
But I take it that a Catholic priest is still allowed to talk to a Samaritan woman at a well, if the occasion presents itself?
The best scholarly treatment of the foot-washing I know of is this: Peter Jeffery, Worship 64.2 (March 1990), 107-141, “Mandatum Novum Do Vobis: Toward a Renewal of the Holy Thursday Footwashing Rite.” Here is an excerpt from his conclusion:
When so many Christian women see the church as one of the oldest and most powerful accomplices in the oppression of their sex, and are repeatedly hurt and angered by its unyielding insensitivity to their situation, how will the church speak to them – and to their many non-Christian sympathizers – of the eternal and limitless love that God bends down to extend to us all, and commands us to give each other? To our world today, mindful of the triumphs and sins of our remembered common past, there could scarcely be a more powerful sign of the humble, utterly self-giving love of Jesus, than a Catholic priest washing the feet of a woman.
Alas, this is just the kind of story the media love. Meanwhile, I’m confident that the vast, vast majority of bishops will use commonsense, follow the evangelical example of Pope Francis, and wash the feet of women next week.