On Thursday evening (April 17), in a familiar reprise of an ancient rite, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., will wash the feet of 12 men, all seminarians — a re-creation of Jesus’ action at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of his disciples and, according to Catholic doctrine, formally instituted the priesthood.
That same evening, thousands of miles away, Pope Francis will also observe the Holy Thursday rite, though not in a cathedral like Morlino but at a center for people with disabilities. There he will wash the feet of a number of residents, all lay people and perhaps some of them women and even non-Christians or nonbelievers.
Francis did something similar last year, shortly after his election, when he stunned church observers by traveling to a juvenile detention center outside Rome and washing the feet of 12 young people, two of them women and two of them Muslims.
More than a few tradition-minded Catholics were aghast at the pope’s example and they welcomed Morlino’s effort to hold the line against innovations, at least in his Wisconsin diocese.
“The Church’s law says that only men may be the recipients of this foot washing,” wrote the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a scrappy blogger popular with the Catholic right. “Morlino’s guidelines” — that his priests must wash the feet of 12 men or not do the foot washing at all — “do nothing but reiterate the Church’s laws, which bishops and priests are obliged to follow.”
So who’s correct?
Is the pope a dissenter? Or are Morlino and others being legalistic? What does the foot washing ritual represent, anyway?
There are no simple answers to those questions, though the weight of history and custom — not to mention authority — seems to be on the pope’s side.
An ancient rite
Accounts of Christian foot washing rituals go back as far as the sixth century. As Peter Jeffrey writes in his 1985 book, “A New Commandment: Toward a Renewed Rite for the Washing of Feet,” there were generally two forms: the “Mandatum Pauperam,” or washing of the feet of poor people, and the “Mandatum Fratrum,” the washing of the feet of “the brothers.”
Neither were part of the Holy Thursday liturgy, and popes and clerics routinely washed the feet of poor people as a sign of service and humility. In convents, as well, “woman washed feet and had their feet washed,” and they washed the feet of guests and children, said Rita Ferrone, the author of several books about liturgy and a consultant to U.S. dioceses on liturgical matters.
“Foot washing does have a long tradition,” Ferrone said, “and it didn’t exclude women up until 1955.”
That’s when Pope Pius XII simplified the Holy Week rites, a reform that included folding the foot washing ritual into the Holy Thursday Mass before marking Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday.
The problem is that back then, Catholic women were not allowed into the restricted space near the altar and, unlike today, they could not have any part in the Mass. So the rule was that 12 chosen men — “viri selecti” in the Latin — would have their feet washed by the priest or bishop.
With that change, the foot washing rite also came to be seen as a kind of re-creation of the Last Supper and the institution of the priesthood.
“The tradition was not to have it be a dramatization of what Jesus did at the last Supper but to be a response to the command to humble service,” Ferrone said.
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