Washing women’s feet

Question: Every year in our cathedral parish there is a controversy on Holy Thursday about whether women’s feet may be washed during the liturgy. Our former bishop washed the feet of six men and six women; but the new bishop washes the feet of men only. A lot of anger has been created by this. Can you shed any light on this matter? 

— Name and address withheld

Answer: The sacramentary for the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday is open to interpretation. There are two schools of thoughts here. The first is that the Holy Thursday ritual is meant to replicate exactly — in the manner of a drama — the action of Jesus in washing the feet of the Twelve Apostles. This rendering would suggest that the Holy Thursday rite today should involve men exclusively.

The second school of thought would hold that the Holy Thursday feet washing is not meant as a ritual re-enactment of the past, but a contemporary ritual wherein the bishop or priest makes his own the original action of Jesus and makes a statement about his own commitment to ministry today. In this view, it does not matter whose feet are washed, and that since women and men hold equal status in the Church through the ennobling gift of baptism, to exclude women from the foot washing would be improper.

The Holy See has not offered any definitive interpretation of the matter at hand. Some years ago, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston asked the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments about this matter; the response was that women’s feet could be washed on Holy Thursday.

Father Michael Heintz, a distinguished patristic scholar, wrote briefly on this matter some years ago, and he concluded, following a brief historical review, as follows: “What is worth noting is that historically the [foot washing] is to be understood not primarily in terms of the ordained priesthood but rather of the baptismal priesthood. Thus, it is not inappropriate that both men and women are invited to participate.” 

Gender of angels

Question: My daughter was delighted when her teacher told the class to choose a name for their guardian angels, since the day was set aside for guardian angels. My daughter asked if she could choose the name Teresa for her guardian angel, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta was her favorite saint. The teacher told her that she could only use a male name as angels are masculine. I always thought that angels have no particular gender. So my daughter was upset. Are all the angels male?

Name withheld, East Dubuque, Iowa

Answer: Certainly the archangels we know about all have male gender names: Michael, Raphael and Gabriel. Catholic tradition has little to say about the identity of angels, beyond the truth that there are many of them, that they are benign and that they are pure spirits. Whenever the angels are depicted in Christian art, they have a sexless appearance.

This may also be a teachable moment for your daughter: Saints are saints, and angels are angels; and they are not the same. Certainly the three archangels bear the title “saint,” but it is good to recognize that angels and saints belong in different realms of God’s creation.

It is also worth noting that according to a 2001 Vatican document on piety, “The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged.”

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.