Vatican Congregation: Pastors Free to Avoid Foot Washing

by Christine Niles  •  •  January 22, 2016   

It's not mandatory, nor should it become the central focus of the Holy Thursday liturgy

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VATICAN CITY ( - The Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is telling pastors they are free to reject the Holy Thursday foot washing if it's not suitable in their circumstances.

In an article published Friday in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's official newspaper, Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, clarifies Pope Francis' new liturgical norms for foot washing, which now allows women to participate in the rite.

I therefore decree that the section according to which those persons chosen for the Washing of the feet must be men or boys, so that from now on the Pastors of the Church may choose the participants in the rite from among all the members of the People of God. I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen.

The Pope had sent the new norms in December 2014 to Cdl. Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation, but the letter decreeing the change was only published Thursday. Although the previous rule had limited the footwashing to men only, the rule was widely ignored in many dioceses.

Roche explains that the footwashing rite is not required, and that pastors have the freedom to determine whether or not the rite should take place in their parish.

"The washing of feet is not mandatory at the Holy Thursday Mass," Roche explains. "Pastors are to evaluate its suitability according to circumstances and pastoral reasons so that it doesn't become automatic or artificial, lacking in meaning ... ."

Neither should pastors go in the opposite direction and make the rite the central focus of the liturgy such that it "take[s] away attention due to the Lord's Supper at Mass."

Roche walks through the history of the footwashing rite, which began in the early centuries as an act in imitation of Our Lord, as well as an expression of sacrificial service. In the seventh century, it was the bishop who washed the feet of priests in his residence. In later centuries, 12 subdeacons were chosen for the rite, although that number was not specifically mentioned in the 1570 Roman Missal.

The 1600 Ceremonial of Bishops mandated that the bishop wash the feet of 13 poor, but the rule was revised later to limit footwashing to priests. In 1955, Pope Pius XII revised the rule to allow the priest to wash 12 men's feet.

Although the original rule limiting the footwashing ceremony only to men was significant for its "imitative value" of Our Lord's washing the feet of the Apostles, Roche explains that the new rule now places the emphasis on Christ's sacrificial love toward all mankind.


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