Francis expands Holy Thursday rite to include women

This Easter, the foot-washing rite normally held as part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy should include women and the elderly and not be confined to men and boys, the Vatican has clarified, following an order from Pope Francis.

The Jan. 6 decree by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments (CDW), released by the Vatican on Jan. 21, says that “pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God,” and that they “may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople.”

The move has dismayed some traditionalists, who were frustrated when Francis celebrated the first Mass of the Last Supper following his election at a juvenile prison in Rome. Among those whose feet he washed were two women and two Muslims. Some critics said at the time that the pope was bound to obey the Church’s own rubrics, which in this case date from 1955, when Pope Pius XII simplified the Holy Week rites, placing the foot-washing ritual within Holy Thursday Mass. The ritual foot-washing is known as the mandatum because of Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 13:34 that he was giving them “a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”

Because Catholic women were not allowed onto the sanctuary in the 1950s, the practice was for 12 chosen men — viri selecti — to have their feet washed by the presiding priest or bishop. Defenders of the rubrics have stressed that the mandatum also institutes the (male) priesthood. After Vatican II, however, the practice in many parts of the world was for people to be taken from the congregation, whether male or female.

In 1987, the U.S. bishops’ liturgy chairman said the principal meaning of the mandatum was the “biblical injunction of Christian charity” and 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.”

Acknowledging that this practice was at variance with the rubrics, the chairman said that “the intention to emphasize service along with charity ... is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord.” A year later, however, the CDW restated that “the washing of the feet of chosen men” was “a tradition that should be maintained.” In 2008, it repeated that viri selecti meant “male persons.”

Pope Francis performed the rite last year at Rome’s Rebibbia prison. Explaining to the inmates that the rite recalls Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, he told them: “The love that Jesus has for us is so big that he became a slave to serve us, to take care of us, to purify us.”

This understanding of the mandatum is expressed in the December letter Francis wrote to the CDW prefect, Cardinal Robert Sarah, ordering the changes.

“From now on the pastors of the Church should be able to choose the participants in the rite from all the members of the People of God,” Pope Francis explained, because Jesus’ act in the Upper Room on the night before his crucifixion symbolized his “limitless love for all.”

However, the decree makes no mention of the celebrant including non-Christians: the “People of God” in canon law refers to the baptized. This appears to suggest that the pope’s washing the feet of Muslims in 2013 would have fallen outside the new decree. But Archbishop Arthur Roche, CDW secretary, clarified that when Francis chose to wash the feet of Muslim youth, it was under “special circumstances.”

Austen Ivereigh is the author of “The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope” (Henry Holt, $30).