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."
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)