The Vatican has issued a new decree that will allow the feet of all "people of God," including women, to be washed during the Holy Thursday liturgy.
The document, signed by Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), states that "pastors may select a small group of the faithful to represent the variety and the unity of each part of the people of God. Such small groups can be made up of men and women, and it is appropriate that they consist of people young and old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated men and women and laity."
In a letter dated Dec. 20, Pope Francis wrote to Cardinal Sarah saying that he had spent much time reflecting on the rite, "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."
The language will change from "The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers ... " to "Those who are chosen from amongst the people of God are led by the ministers ...," the decree stated.
Pope Francis also recommended that an "adequate explanation of the rite itself" be provided to those whose feet will be washed.
The decree is dated Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany, which means it can be applied to this year's Holy Thursday liturgy on March 24.
Many consider Pope Francis' decree to be a formalization of what already was taking place in many dioceses, especially in the United States, though the practice has not been universal. A statement issued in 1987 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy stated that "it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world."
"While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which mentions only men ('viri selecti'), it may nevertheless be said that the intention to emphasize service along with charity in the celebration of the rite is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, 'who came to serve and not to be served,' that all members of the Church must serve one another in love," the committee said.
Extending the foot-washing ritual to women has long been a passionate debate in theological and liturgical circles. Many Church leaders have maintained that the foot-washing scene in the Gospel of John, Chapter 13, on which the rite is based, is one that gives not only an example of humble service but one that also provides a Scriptural foundation for the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
In a 1995 paper, Father Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J., outlined how the washing of the disciples' feet is in effect a "status transformation ritual" in which, as Dr. Leroy Huizenga wrote in Catholic World Report, "the disciples are made priests of the new covenant."
Despite the pontiff's latest decree, it is unlikely that this debate will disappear in some circles of the Church. Perhaps in recognition of this fact, Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the CDW, in a commentary accompanying the decree, reminded the Church that the "washing of the feet is not obligatory" during the Holy Thursday liturgy.
"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."
Archbishop Roche also reminds the Church that the ritual must not become "so important as to grab all the attention during the Mass of the Lord's Supper ...," during which the Church "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."
Gretchen R. Crowe is editor of OSV Newsweekly.