The Vatican announced on January 21 that the Pope has made a change in the Liturgy of Holy Thursday (the beginning of the three-day Christian Passover), adding the instruction that those selected for the ritual of the washing of the feet be drawn from all the faithful, thus including women in the ceremony. Heretofore, the official text called upon only males to have their feet washed, since the thought was that Christ washed the feet of his disciples whom later tradition considered to be the forerunners of the ordained ministry, a service in the Church still restricted to men only.
Pope Francis made news during his first Holy Thursday as pope when he washed the feet of young criminals, both men and women. Many welcomed the news of this gesture as a Christ-like act of love. Others offered a caution because of the perceived confusion it might have caused regarding who is qualified to sit the in places of the apostles cum priests.
There is nothing new about popes instituting changes in the liturgy. The ancient Liber Pontificalis (a serial biography of the popes from the 5th century onwards) always makes note of papal contributions to the prayers and rubrics of the mass. More recently, Saint John XXIII made two significant changes at the time of the Second Vatican Council. He added the name of Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus to the canon of the mass, at the point after the words of consecration when Mary is invoked. His decision was something of a fiat, following an episode at the Council in which an elderly Croatian bishop, who had suffered persecution in his homeland, was making an impassioned plea for Saint Joseph. His halting Latin, which had gone on for some time, eventually raised some audible murmurs and derision. Pope John announced the following day that the matter was closed and the name of Saint Joseph would henceforward be included in the mass. His second change in the mass was the prayer for the Jews on Good Friday. Where before the Church prayed for the “faithless Jews,” the new text prayed for the predecessors in the faith (“Let us pray also for the Jewish people, to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant”). On the first Good Friday after the change was instituted, a deacon at the papal mass said the words of the old prayer, at which moment Pope John stopped him and bade him to use the new text.
The liturgy reflects the Church’s self-understanding when gathered for its public worship of God. Today the praying Church sees itself as the People of God. This vision is one of the great gifts of the Council. Pope Francis’ decision captures this modern understanding. His instruction points to a greater emphasis on the communitarian sense of the Church:
“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. I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen.”
His explanation points to the “limitless charity” (“la sua carità senza confini“) of Christ, whose self-giving was for “salvation of the world.” In changing the focus of the act from reminding the male clergy of their call to service, to reminding us all of the universal reach of Christ’s call to mercy, the Pope follows in the footsteps of an ancient Benedictine practice. Medieval monks washed the feet of the poor and strangers who sought their hospitality, a custom they called the Mandatum, or the “Command” of Christ instituted on Holy Thursday. By this change in the rubrics, he also enshrines a custom already practiced throughout the Catholic world since the Council. Pope Francis’ action is not so much as an innovator but rather as a renovator. In this year of Mercy, he is inviting all of us, women as much as men, to be agents of renewal of a Church in service of suffering humanity.
Photo of church stained glass by Reinhardhauke on Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Brown, Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet, on Wikimedia Commons