The head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah, has issued a decree, In Missa in Cena Domini (In the Mass of the Lord’s Supper), approving changes to the Holy Thursday ceremony of the washing of feet, to allow any member of the congregation, not just men, to have their feet washed by the celebrant.
During visits to prisons on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis himself has washed the feet of prisoners, including women and Muslims.
In his letter, Cardinal Sarah said that the Holy Father had, for some time, reflected on the “rite of the washing of the feet contained in the Liturgy of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, with the intention of improving the way in which it is performed so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus' gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity.”
Pope Francis wrote, “After careful consideration, I have decided to make a change to the Roman Missal. 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.”
The rite of the washing of feet is an ancient rite of the Church, going back to at least the 7th century, and probably much earlier. In a commentary issued with the decree, the Congregation for Divine Worship has given a summary of the historical use of the rite which has taken different forms at different times.
In a 7th century Ordo, the ceremony is conducted by the priest washing the feet of “clergy in his house”. There were different rules in different dioceses and abbeys in the Middle Ages.
In a Roman Pontifical of the 13th century, it says that the rite will be performed on “twelve sub-deacons”, in imitation of Jesus’ washing of the feet of the apostles.
In the Roman Missal of St Pius V of 1570, the rite was reserved to the ordained priesthood, but no number of persons is specified.
The rite of the washing of feet in the Ceremoniale Episcoporum (Ceremonies of Bishops) of 1600 is more detailed. It mentions the custom (after Vespers or at lunchtime, in a church, a chapter room or a suitable place) of the Bishop washing, drying and kissing the feet of “thirteen” poor people after having dressed them, fed them and given them a charitable donation.
Alternatively, this could be done to thirteen clerics within a religious community, according to the local custom and wishes of the Bishop, who might choose poor people even where it has been the practice that they be clergy.
With the reform of Pius XII in the 20th century, the rite was moved to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to the evening, with the washing of the feet of twelve men (not necessarily clergy) taking place during the Mass, after the homily.
This was reformed in 1970, to remove the requirement for 12 men, and simplifying the prayers said during the rite.
According to the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Archbishop Arthur Roche, “The current change foresees that individuals may be chosen from amongst all the members of the people of God.
“The significance does not now relate so much to the exterior imitation of what Jesus has done, rather as to the meaning of what he has accomplished which has a universal importance, namely the giving of himself ‘to the end’ for the salvation of the human race, his charity which embraces all people and which makes all people brothers and sisters by following his example.
“In fact, the exemplum that he has given to us so that we might do as he has done goes beyond the physical washing of the feet of others to embrace everything that such a gesture expresses in service of the tangible love of our neighbour.
“All the antiphons proposed in the Missal during the washing of feet recall and illustrate the meaning of this gesture both for those who carry it out and for those who receive it as well as for those who look on and interiorise it through the chant.
“The washing of feet is not obligatory in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.”
It is for pastors to evaluate its desirability, according to the pastoral considerations and circumstances which exist, in such a way that it does not become something automatic or artificial, deprived of meaning and reduced to a staged event.
“Nor must it become so important as to grab all the attention during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, celebrated on ‘the most sacred day on which our Lord Jesus Christ was handed over for our sake’.
“In the directions for the homily we are reminded of the distinctiveness of this Mass which commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, of the priestly Order and of the new commandment concerning fraternal charity, the supreme law for all and towards all in the Church.”
Archbishop Roche added, “It is for pastors to choose a small group of persons who are representative of the entire people of God – lay, ordained ministers, married, single, religious, healthy, sick, children, young people and the elderly – and not just one category or condition.
“Those chosen should offer themselves willingly.
“Lastly, it is for those who plan and organise the liturgical celebrations to prepare and dispose everything so that all may be helped to fruitfully participate in this moment.”