Cardinal Sarah: Priests Don’t Have to Wash Women’s Feet

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.





  1. Having men in authority wash the feet of women could have been such a powerful sign in Kazakhstan.
    Maybe the bishop thinks only the feet of Jewish fishermen and tax collectors should be washed to get the re-enactment just so.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      Misogyny? I’ve known and worked with Fr. Fessio for a long time, and I have never seen him treat women with anything but respect. Could it be that you are unable to understand his position, or do you merely disagree with it? In either case, your reaction is to assume the worst and start name calling—which is your own clever brew of hate mongering and misinformation. Or do you really have this amazing gift of seeing into people’s hearts?

      1. @Diana Silva:
        Misogyny isn’t just about how one treats women – although I’m glad to hear that you’ve observed respectful treatment of women. Misogyny can also be about ones beliefs and convictions and theology about women. A person who treats women well could well have misogynist beliefs about them.

      2. @Diana Silva:
        As Fr Anthony said, it’s not about behavior in this instance, but belief. As for my claim, I wrote “misogyny.” Not misogynist. The latter is name-calling. The former is belief, by what seems to be clouded by an imperfect view of Scripture and theology.

        As for the situation of cultural taboos, there is always the solution of women washing the feet of their own.

      3. @Todd Flowerday:
        Now who would serve up misogyny but a misogynist? Because you disagree with him, you have accused him of misogyny, and that’s the same as calling him a misogynist. Perhaps you have an imperfect view of what he is trying to say. @Fr. Anthony Ruff yes, A PERSON who treats women well COULD have misogynistic believes about them, but can you not imagine that Fr. Fessio’s reasoning might not include any hatred at all? How quickly we ascribe hatred to one who simply disagrees with us! It wins every argument, doesn’t it. Who washes whose feet is not the hill I want to die on, but I don’t like to see a good man maligned.

      4. @Diana Silva:
        Who? An isolated person. A person formed by a certain culture that misunderstands or avoids women. A person with a blind spot to Scripture. People are not defined or labelled by any single statements they make. At least not justly.

        I don’t think Fr Fessio is hateful at all. I’m prepared to accept your word he is respectful. But as a public figure making a public statement, his words are open to scrutiny, as mine certainly are. You have made the link of misogyny and hatred. I wouldn’t presume it is so. On this point, the man lacks a grasp of Scripture. That doesn’t make him a theological ignoramus. Not at all. On his point of John 13, he is mistaken. He or others are free to dispute that. I have no problem at all with that.

  2. Great job, Father Anthony, with your very perceptive commentary on this latest directive from Cardinal Sarah. Likewise, the comments by Alan Johnson and Todd Flowerday are on-point in naming the “issues behind the issue” in the matter of whose feet may (or may not) be washed at the Holy Thursday liturgy. I’m not surprised. This “push-back” was bound to happen – as with other things Pope Francis has been seeking to implement since becoming pope. His intended reform of the Curia, along with a vigorous implementation of “synodality” at all levels of the church, can’t come too soon for me! Hopes are for the Jubilee Year of Mercy to be a vehicle for bringing people back to the church. However, if those at any level of episcopal leadership seek to obstruct or dilute the renewal initiatives of Pope Francis (such as this issue – or what may appear in the impending final document on the Synod on the Family), then I wouldn’t be surprised if even more people join the “Former Catholics” demographic.

  3. I could understand a statement like “I don’t feel comfortable washing the feet of women” or “it wouldn’t be culturally acceptable to do that in Kazakhstan” but I don’t understand “I cannot in good conscience” do so. Like it would be a sin? I did not get the impression that the Pope was requiring priests to do that in the first place.

  4. As I understand it the washing of feet is entirely optional. Given the strong views it might be wisest to omit this altogether: nobody will be excluded on grounds of gender or race or age etc, and those who would object to the inclusion of women will not be upset.

  5. Well, I hope Cardinal Sarah doesn’t show up at the convent where my wife and I worship…we all wash each other’s feet.

  6. A Catholic priest can wash the feet of anyone he chooses if he follows the Pope’s example…even an Islamic woman. This argument and clarifying of what the rubrics from the Latin intended prompts the annual tallying of bishops who are mistaken in their translating skills by Professor Jeffrey. The mandate of “do this” was not gender specific in command but in practice because the sampling of feet when the mandate was issued only had feet that were attached to males.

    Folowing Fr. Fessio SJ’s reasoning would mean that parishes on Holy Thursday that only have 1 priest and no deacons …no one gets their feet washed.

  7. The Decree IN MISSA IN CENA DOMINI of 6 January 2016, signed by Cardinal Sarah, says: “… it seemed good to the Supreme Pontiff Pope Francis to vary the norm which is found in the rubrics…”, which is a reasonable translation of the Latin. To me it conveys a feeling of “the Pope says I’ve got to tell you this, so here it is.” It describes it as “this innovation.” What a shock: an innovation in the sacred Liturgy”!

    Tom O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham, has a good article on the foot-washing at

  8. “5Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”

    Evidently Father Fessio does not use the Ignatius Press Bible. John does not use apostles but disciples. What the text says is not what he (and many others) want it to say.

      1. @Jeffrey Pinyan
        For theological reasons, John sets the crucifixion of Jesus at a different time than the Synoptics, so the supper is not the Seder as in the Synoptics. And if the day of the crucifixion can be adjusted for theology, I would suspect that the guest list at supper could be too.
        Which makes Luke (whose Passion we will read this Sunday) an interesting case. In Luke the apostles are the Twelve, who are chosen from the disciples. The disciples are a much larger group which includes women, whom Luke specifically names. The gospel does not use the words disciple and apostle interchangeably. When Jesus sends Peter and John to prepare, he specifies that he needs a place to eat the Passover with his disciples. Jesus and the Twelve then join that meal. At the end Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives accompanied by his disciples. Luke makes a clear choice to portray the Last Supper as an event shared by more than the Twelve, and most likely including women. This presents some problems for those who want to focus that event solely on ordained ministry.
        On a side note that sheds some light on the history of washing feet in Christianity, I might suggest that Fr. Fessio cultivate a devotion to St Oswald of Worcester, whom I ran across recently looking to find what saint was unlucky enough to die on February 29. Oswald died in 922, while following his custom of washing the feet of the poor.

      2. @Jeffrey Pinyan:
        Look carefully. The Twelve were part of the Last Supper, but the narratives also explicitly include other disciples: Mk 14:16 & Mt 26:19. Luke does realte that Peter and John were specifically the preparers. John does not include the Eucharist in his narrative, a ritual that has forever been open to women as well as men.

        What are we to make of all this? Is footwashing a lost sacrament? Is it an expression of the Twelve, intended to have died with that unrepeatable ministry? Extended to just clergy–then why even an option at a parish Mass? Do we accept John 13:15 as a mandate as we do the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist? By focusing on women’s feet, male squeamishness, or adherence to the letter, have we missed an opportunity in all this?

        At the very least, the Church seems more open to a real discernment on this today as compared with 3-30 years ago. I’m less interested in ritual play-acting than I am something that deepens faith. If it doesn’t excite faith on a broad level, like fanons and cappa magna and choral concerts, then we should give it an honorable burial.

      3. @Todd Flowerday:
        Gathering some of my thoughts previously expressed over at your blog 2 months ago:

        I wonder if we should see consideration ad experimentum with the development of this as a proper sacramental with its own ritual, that could be included at Evening Prayer (is that to consign it to oblivion? is it to presume upon another liturgical failure?) and then consider whether and how to integrate it into the Mass. It was Pius XII who decided to tackle it the other way around, and maybe that’s not the best way to consider this.

        Also, it occurs to me that, in the context of the time and place of Jesus, the washing of feet was a basic social ritual that everyone participated in regularly in some manner (well, people mostly washed their own feet; having a slave (usually female) wash feet was a sign of particular hospitality for them who had the slaves to do so).
        Not so in our culture. Hasn’t been so in centuries and more. (Whereas eating and drinking have retained a greater universality of social reality, by contrast). It may be that, as Christianity moved to places where the washing of feet was not a omnipresent social reality, that the ritualization of the Mandatum withered to become an artifact used in special contexts and special ways (monastic communities; courtly noblesse oblige).
        And this begs the larger and deeper question: WHO the heck is understood to be a “servant” in our culture in a way that really meshes well with the servanthood to which disciples are called? We live in a culture (in the USA, that is) that has a very strange relationship to the very concept of servanthood. We have business relationships, whether they are for profit or not, we are all assumed to retain agency in some way. To cling to our wills. (In other words: what kind of theosis?)
        So, in our culture, the ritual may need a helluva lot more telling than showing. Is that worth it?

      4. @Karl Liam Saur:
        I suppose I’d interpret the suggestion of “servant” less and more one of mutual respect and a tinge of vulnerability. Given the political discourse in our country today, nobody can convince me we don’t need more tenderness, to borrow a term of Pope Francis.

        To be fair, anointing has shifted in meaning also–now we associate it with secular massage, and some conservatives certainly don’t want us anywhere near that.

        And the bottom line remains: the mandate of the Lord to express service–not necessarily servanthood. Service anchored in caritas et amor, not in persona Christi. Do we reject a symbol because it has no secular meaning or source of reference?

        I’ve witnessed many tender moments over the years with parents, children, spouses, and good friends washing one another’s feet. Showing seems to be enough, and people feel free to absent themselves from it. I think we under-estimate the power of the ritual. Which may be why the emangelization dudes at 1P5 are going bonkers over it, in part. Some liturgist in my formative years said the most powerful rituals and symbols happen to be the ones we fight about the most, and are misunderstood the most.

      5. @Todd Flowerday:
        “I suppose I’d interpret the suggestion of “servant” less and more one of mutual respect and a tinge of vulnerability”

        That strikes me as very bourgeois-tamed adaptation of the ritual meaning of the model. I don’t mean that as a condemnation but as more as a forthright realization.

        Just to be clear here: my questions are open-ended – I don’t have any urge to see the ritual omitted or removed. I am, rather, wondering about other ways to understand it. The ritual change of 1955 was an innovation in meaning and placement, and I think we are still considering how to receive it.

      6. @Karl Liam Saur:
        I think my explorations are open-ended, too. I start with the Gospel, with what seems to be a clear mandate of the Lord, what I know of the monastic tradition in the Middle Ages, and what I see as a spiritual need in today’s Church. If we could honestly say, “See how they love one another” I could take foot washing or leave it, too.

        I think I serve a pretty good parish, but I see the need for tenderness among parishioners and even family members here. Unfortunately, we have a mostly private sacrament to address that, and no vehicle for inspiring people to accept vulnerability from another. The good thing is we’re talking about it. Wouldn’t be really possible as little as four years ago.

        And lastly, the ritual change of 1955 may well be as much the movement of the Spirit as early Communion was. Not without complications, mind you.

        And placement? Morning Prayer Holy Thursday? A first Thursday devotion for daily Massgoers? Rite of Marriage option? Triduum is pretty high-profile. If they ever put it in the ordination rite, I’d feel more sympathy for the poor misguided clergy still attempting a crawl-back from this.

      7. @Todd Flowerday:
        “And lastly, the ritual change of 1955 may well be as much the movement of the Spirit as early Communion was. Not without complications, mind you.

        You are reading my mind, which you know on that score. It may just be on a multi-generation lag in terms of further development, as was the case with the liturgical changes that followed the sacramental revolution.. (And might be accompanied by exploration of the other pre-Tridentine rituals, like the reconciliation of penitents, et cet.)

        Meanwhile, I have no objection to it being included in the Chrism Mass as well.

  9. In the Sheep-Goats Judgement scene at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “whatever you did to the least of my brothers, you did to me.” And we’ve interpreted that passage as saying we must treat all others as we would Jesus. And that is certainly true. Every person is one of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. But in the context in which this passage appears, Jesus is telling the crowd that however they treat the ones he has sent (the Apostles) to them, they treat him.
    At the Last Supper… the farewell supper…. that the apostles are meant to serve all others out of humility and love has already been drilled into them. But what about the apostles themselves? Who will care for them? The washing of the feet of the 12 is a reminder that, “OK, Boys,” Jesus says, “I’m going away. So now you have to look after and care for each other as I would. So that, then, you may also care for all others.” Jesus is telling the caregivers to care for each other. We still have got to get the knack of that.

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski:
      I realize it must be so frustrating for you to come here and witness of our our benighted musings here without the benefit of your enlightment . . . and ever-growing edifice of argumentation.

      Consider it an opportunity to…offer it up. Pull up a chair (or, if you prefer, a kneeler), relax into it. Our ignoring of your exasperation doesn’t mean you’re irrelevant to this conversation. It only means we don’t treat it as dispositive in the way you seem to prefer we would.

      Cheers. Blessings of the season to you and yours.

  10. I don’t attribute much to this “interview” of Cardinal Sarah, which seems to have arrived via several removes and through some very tendentious channels. There has already been one retraction of a mistaken attribution, “by no means does a priest have to wash the feet of women”. I wonder what the cardinal actually said.

    Nonetheless, if he really said what is claimed here, if he really asked priests to appeal to their consciences and “according to the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast”, then he appears to have said, in essence,

    “The pope told me to tell you that priests could wash women’s feet, so I told you that. But, in fact, the pope is wrong, perhaps ignorant of the purpose for which the Lord instituted Holy Thursday. So I now tell you: not only are priests not required to wash women’s feet, but they should not do so.”

    Is that how others are reading the cardinal’s statement?

    1. @Jonathan Day:
      What I see is an man from a cultural background that venerates elders and men in power and has a pretty poor record when it comes to the place of women recoiling at the idea of washing their feet. Throw in notions of celibacy preserving men from the taint of contact in order to preserve ritual purity and you get a pretty potent mix. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that he might have issues surrounding washing women’s feet.

      1. @Alan Johnson:
        I have no window into Cardinal Sarah’s soul. I don’t know what motivated his remarks to the journalist, if in fact he made them.

        What I find curious is that he appears not only to be disagreeing with Pope Francis but even to be speaking against an explicit direction from the Holy Father. Plenty of bishops disagree with the pope, and this pope seems to welcome dissent. But Cardinal Sarah is working directly for Pope Francis. To convey a message to the effect that “the Pope says you can do this, but I say that you should not” strikes me as very close to insubordination.

        To be clear, this is not about ultramontanism, or assuming that every word from a pope is infallible. But when someone’s superior gives an instruction that strikes the subordinate as wrong, and the superior won’t change his mind, then in most settings the subordinate has two choices: comply or resign. I am trying to think of a setting (business, the military, medicine, etc.) where this is not the case.

        This is why I have serious questions both about the accuracy of the reporting and the interpretation being given to Cardinal Sarah’s remarks.

  11. I understand that most of the conversation has been around the good Cardinal’s instruction about conscience when it comes to washing the feet of women in light of the Pope’s wishes. However, I would like to comment on cultural issues. Isn’t it possible that the cultural taboo of touching a woman’s feet is very high in Kasakhstan? and the Archbishop washing a woman’s foot could be a scandal to the woman as well as the archbishop? Is it possible that it could do more harm than good in that part of the world as opposed to the industrialized West? I am not advocating against washing women’s feet, because I in fact think it is a good thing. I am asking that maybe this is a culturally sensitive issue that as a globalized Church we need to be sensitive too. Cultures differ across the world and they have different but still legitimate ways of interacting with each other.

    Just questions, I am not saying I have the answers to my questions. I just like asking them when they are not addressed.

  12. It never ceases to amaze me how some people use their theological views as a cudgel. We are talking about a settled matter for most American parishes. It has long been customary for bishops and priests to wash the feet of both males and females during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Since the rubrics clearly designate the rite as optional, some priests and bishops will skirt the matter regarding women by omitting it. In this forum we are all aware that some of our posters use the word traditional to infer that the Roman Rite between the Council of Trent and 1969 represents the apogee and norm for Catholic worship. As far as I can tell they are not interested in being dissuaded from this conviction. They have in Joseph Fessio and Robert Sarah articulate and powerful fellow travelers who seem to suggest that the Pope is simply in error in following a different practice than the one known to ‘traditionalists”. May peace be with them.

  13. 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.

    What is in John 12 is a clear precedent for the foot washing:

    “Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus* and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”

    If you doubt that this is a washing of the feet, look at the parallel in Luke 7:

    “When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
    You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
    You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment.”

    Mary’s celebration of her brother’s return from the dead, the loving act of the woman in Luke, are early expressions of the meaning of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. While excluding women might be a legitimate inculturation of the ritual, it is just bizarre to read the story in isolation and exclude women as if scripture presented it that way.

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