January 21, 2016

Pope Francis opens foot-washing rite to women in gesture of inclusion

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Pope Francis washes a foot of a disabled person at the S. Maria della Provvidenza church in Rome, during the Holy Thursday celebration, April 17, 2014. Pope Francis visited a rehabilitation centre at the church, on Rome's outskirts, for a service in which he washed and kissed the feet of 12 sick and disabled people. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (ITALY - Tags: RELIGION) - RTR3LPHM

Pope Francis washes a foot of a disabled person at the S. Maria della Provvidenza church in Rome, during the Holy Thursday celebration, April 17, 2014. Pope Francis visited a rehabilitation centre at the church, on Rome's outskirts, for a service in which he washed and kissed the feet of 12 sick and disabled people. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (ITALY - Tags: RELIGION) - RTR3LPHM

VATICAN CITY (RNS) In a change that quickly set the Catholic world buzzing, Pope Francis is allowing priests to wash the feet of women and anyone else in the community on Holy Thursday and not just men, as church law had previously decreed.

The reform, announced Thursday (Jan. 21), reflects Francis’ own groundbreaking gesture when, just two weeks after his election in 2013, he washed the feet of young people — including women and a Muslim — at a detention center outside Rome.

The Holy Thursday rite, on the evening before Good Friday, re-enacts Jesus’ washing the feet of his 12 disciples at the Last Supper.

The pope’s act three years ago, like the new change, upset traditionalists who argued that the pope should follow church law to the letter; many priests, especially in U.S. parishes, have often washed the feet of women, though others continue to bar women.

Critics of the change also say the rules were written to require that only men be chosen because the disciples were all men.

The Catholic Church believes the Last Supper marks the formal institution of the all-male priesthood. So any move to diversify those whose feet are washed by the priest — who is taking the role of Jesus — could raise questions about ordination.

“This inevitably makes the all-male priesthood itself harder to understand,” said Joseph Shaw, head of the Latin Mass Society, which supports the older rites. Shaw added that the pope’s move “reinforces the trend which has seen priests increasingly surrounded by women during Mass.”

Pope Francis washes the foot of a prisoner at Casal del Marmo youth prison in Rome March 28, 2013. Two young women were among 12 people whose feet Pope Francis washed and kissed at a traditional ceremony in a Rome youth prison on Holy Thursday, the first time a pontiff has included females in the rite. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Osservatore Romano *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-FOOTWASHING, originally transmitted on Jan. 21, 2015.

Pope Francis washes the foot of a prisoner at Casal del Marmo youth prison in Rome on March 28, 2013. Two young women were among 12 people whose feet Pope Francis washed and kissed at a traditional ceremony in a Rome youth prison on Holy Thursday, the first time a pontiff has included females in the rite. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Osservatore Romano
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-FOOTWASHING, originally transmitted on Jan. 21, 2016.

Advocates of greater roles for women in the church, on the other hand, welcomed the change.

“This is great news, a wonderful step forward,” Erin Hanna, co-director of the U.S.-based Women’s Ordination Conference, told Reuters. “This means that change is possible, doors seem to be opening in the Vatican.”

While Thursday’s action is likely to further inflame those debates, Francis has previously reaffirmed that he believes the Catholic priesthood should continue to be restricted to men.

In fact, this change to the Holy Thursday rite seems primarily connected to the pontiff’s push to make the church more inclusive.

As the new decree states, pastors picking a dozen people to stand in for the apostles at the foot-washing rite “may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God.”

“This group may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople.”

It is also designed to underscore his view that priests should be humble servants and not clerical “careerists,” as he has said.

In a note on the decree from Archbishop Arthur Roche, the liturgy congregation’s second-in-command, Roche says that “the rite traditionally has a dual meaning: it imitates Jesus’ gesture in the (Last Supper), when he washed the feet of the apostles and it is symbolic of the giving of oneself inherent in this servile gesture.”

Francis had been pushing the rule change for some time.

While the new law was announced in a decree issued Thursday by Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican liturgy office that sets rules for celebrating Mass and other rites, the Vatican also released a letter from Francis to Sarah in December 2014 in which the pope asked the cardinal to make changes so that the rite “might fully express the significance of the gesture performed by Jesus at the Last Supper.”

There was no immediate explanation for the lag time.

“Small steps are also taken with feet,” the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, an Italian Jesuit who is close to the pope, quipped in a tweet. “And step by step,” he added parenthetically.

(Rosie Scammell covers the Vatican for RNS and David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS)

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  • Betty Clermont

    Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, local pastors included women in the rite. (It would be news only if women performed the rite.) Just like RNS reported as “new” all the statements made by this pope towards Jews which were just reiterations of what was declared in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. RNS “spins” the news as a member of this pope’s lapdog press.

  • Garson Abuita

    There’s the letter of Nostra Aetate, and then there’s its application. I’m sure Benedict XVI could recite it verbatim but that doesn’t mean he publicly and visibly extolled it the same way. And you had the fights over the Good Friday Prayer “for” the Jews. True — Francis gets a lot of good press. But also true is that not since the healthier days of St. John Paul II has there been a Pope so overtly friendly toward the Jewish people.

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    Maybe the issue is that so many openings and new beginnings initiated in the time of John XXIII and Paul VI were slammed shut by JPII and Benedict XVI; so that Francis’ reversal of those reversals becomes noteworthy.

    Speaking to this particular case, I can’t, for the life of me, understand how a gesture of servanthood, i.e., the washing of feet, which is intended to elucidate “a new commandment I give to you–that you love one another,” can be construed to be applicable male-to-male only. Following the Vatican’s “logic” the Gospel is for men only.

  • Máire Ní Bhroin

    Truly a gesture guided by the Holy Spirit…Jesus loves everyone!

  • Leo Sprietsma

    Likely will never happen, but it would be nice to allow an alternate Holy Thursday Mass where the consecration of Bread and wine is incorporated into some version of a Jewish Passover service.

    I have had the priviledge of joining in an actual Jewish Passsover a few times, and it does give one a sense of what Jesus was doing, at least in the Synoptic Gospel descriptions.-

    Experriencing a Mass in that actual Passover context really helps to understand what the Mass is all about.

    Of course the foot washing is from John’s last supper, which was not a Passover ritual meal.

  • Rose Berger

    >>>“This inevitably makes the all-male priesthood itself harder to understand,” the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales, which supports the older rites, said in a statement that said the pope’s move “reinforces the trend which has seen priests increasingly surrounded by women during Mass.”<<<
    Really? I thought these Latin Mass guys were supposed to be some of the most educated in the world. Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is pretty clear. It's a sign of service and humility. Only if you've made an idol of masculine divinity will it be hard to understand.

  • Lidia Michael

    “Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is pretty clear. It’s a sign of service and humility. ”

    And you’ve just stated the whole debate!

    I think we all agree that it’s a sign of service and humility. But it has also been the Catholic interpretation that it’s a sign that the ministerial priesthood (as shown by him anointing only the men) is to be foremost a serving ministry, humble and willing to die for the flock. Now that meaning has been wiped away.

  • Greg McMurphy

    Yes, the modeling servitude and commandment to serve, constant reminders that the first shall be last are push to the background in order to keep the emphasis on male only priesthood, and top down primacy of bishop of Rome. Pulling one jenga piece out may not topple the construct but the power structure doesn’t want to find out.

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  • Betty Clermont

    Yes, that’s the point. JPII said and did much, so there’s nothing “new” about this pontificate.

  • Betty Clermont

    Agreed. That’s why “In 1987, the chairman of the US bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy said that the Latin phrase viri selecti in the Roman Missal, which means “pre-chosen men,” can be taken to mean both men and women, “in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world.”” cruxnow.com
    The point being,again, RNS continued misrepresentations about this pope.

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  • I will be happy when women, whether lay or “religious”, are allowed to wash the feet of others. When “allowed” is replaced by “enjoined” and the Holy Thursday observance makes visible that all are equally called, through our one baptism, into his life of service.

  • Profling

    I bet the liberals wouldn’t like to see women washing men’s feet. Too servile for them.

  • Profling

    No, honey, Latin viri doesn’t include women. It means males only.