What Does The Washing of Feet Really Say?

MandatumIn one of the other internet projects I am involved in, the Catholic Online Forum, in 2004 I once wrote a short piece on the issue of the washing of feet on Holy Thursday.  I reproduce it here (adapted and edited).

Each year there is recurring set of abuses of the people of God that take place during the Sacred Triduum.

First there is vile abuse of the people through illicit "general absolution". That will need its own treatment.  Second there is the silliness surrounding washing the feet of women during the Mass of Holy Thursday.

Finally tired of the blather about how "sexist" it is to wash only the feet of men, or how "meaningful" it is to wash the feet of females of any age, I figured it was time to give my explanation.

People get pretty emotional about this topic.  Any priest who decides actually to obey the Church’s laws finds that he is being fried on the third rail. I know a few priests who have exercised their option not to have the rite at all because some angry women were carping at him about not being treated equally and there was no reasoning with them, no explanations possible.

However, it may also be possible that they really were not able to explain it clearly: they know the truth about this rite, but sometimes in the life of a busy pastor having a sense of something isn’t the same as theological clarity.  They wind up unable to put thoughts into clear words.

Here is my explanation.  Keep in mind I fully believe that just stating the law of the Church ought to be enough.  There are many other possible explanations, of course.  We cannot reduce Christ’s actions to single layers.  Still, our faith calls us to seek understanding.  I want to understand why the Church now washes the feet of men and not of women.
There is discussion of the significance of viri selecti. Why “males only”?  That is what viri selecti means and any use to the contrary is a liturgical abuse which creates confusion and scandal.  Disobedience cause negative fruits.  On the other hand, positive fruits come from the proper observance of this rite. That said, what is the meaning of this rite?

I am going to get rather theological here. Here are some of the theological “hooks” I will hang my thoughts, some guiding principles.

1)  The priest is alter Christus. In the Mass the priest is Christ, the Head of the Body, acting as priest and victim, mediator for the people.

2)  Sometimes during Mass the priest does things that are for the benefit of the people, some things that are for himself and the people together, some things for himself alone.

3)  Christ Himself is the real actor at every Mass. Sometimes Christ is acting in the person of the priest, the Head, in the persons of the congregation, the Body, and the Totus Christus, the Christ Entire, Body and Head together. This is made manifest in the liturgy through outward gestures and spoken or sung words.

4)  There are times when what is being done is primarily for the priest who is the celebrant, in his capacity as Christ the Head of the Body. There are times when he is speaking directly to the Father, and not to the congregation. There are times when what he does is for himself.

5)  When the priest acts as the Head and for himself, there is always a dimension of the action or words that include the people, for he does not stop being a mediator. However, people are able to view or hear what the priest is doing for himself sometimes more, and sometimes less, according to the indications of the rubrics which acknowledge this distinction.

6)  There is a QUALITATIVE difference between the priesthood of the priest and the priesthood of the baptized. They are directed and oriented to each other. However, the priesthood of the priest is directed to the baptized in the mode of teaching, governing and sanctifying. All three of those offices, which Christ the High Priest possesses perfectly and then confers on his ordained priests, are dimensions of SERVICE to the people of God the Church.

Therefore, some things that the priest does all by himself and for himself in the context of Mass can nevertheless be viewed by others but that does not mean that the congregation is the principle "audience" or recipient of those things, even though they might be edified in the meantime.

Moving to the second part:

The rite of washing of feet at Holy Thursday Mass is mysterious and has many levels. We can consider it in light of the PRIESTHOOD. That means it can be considered in the priesthood in the way of the baptized and in the way of the priest: qualitatively different ways.

When we discuss the meaning of Christ washing feet of Apostles in the Scripture alone, or rather, outside of Mass, or even better, outside the Mass of Holy Thursday, then it is reasonable and logical to think about how Christ is first and foremost giving an example to His disciples that they should serve each other in humble charity.

However, in the context of the Mass of Holy Thursday, we have an entirely different dynamic. This is the Mass about the institution of the Eucharist and of the sacramental priesthood.  It is not so much about the priesthood of the baptized. 

The sacramental priesthood is so important in the Church that there are moments when it gets to be underscored all by itself. This is one of them.

When the priest washes feet at Holy Thursday you see alter Christus once again acting to wash the feet of the Apostles, iconically symbolized by the men chosen for the rite. Remember that, in liturgical and sacramental terms, what we do in Mass makes those mysteries present to us again.  Christ washes His Apostles feet.  Just as the iconic argument is decisive in the ordination of men alone, it is also decisive in the selection of males only in this particular moment.

What you are being privileged to view in the rite of washing of feet, the Mandatum, is a moment when (in Holy Mother Church’s liturgy) Jesus Christ is teaching the priest, the alter Christus, that his priesthood is one of service to the rest of the Church. When the congregation sees this, they are being taught something about the role of the priest.  The viri selecti being ministered to by Christ, alter Christus, symbolize the future priests Christ chooses for service to the rest of the Church. 

Put another way, the Church in this rite is hammering into the priest that he is alter Christus, acting once again in the manner of Christ at the Last Supper.   It is an object lesson.  It is primarily for the priest’s benefit and edification that this is undertaken in the context of the Holy Thursday Mass, and secondarily for the benefit of the lay people who witness it: they learn something more about the sacramental ordained priesthood on the night it was instituted.

This is no way excludes other teachable and learnable content for the entire people of God.  However, this particular Mass is not just about everyone’s priesthood by baptism. Of course, it is perfectly okay that people take away also the lesson that they are to serve their fellow man, that all Christians must "wash feet" as it were. 

There are all sorts of other wonderful things to derive from this rite.  For example, in his sermon for the Mass in question today, Holy Thursday, Pope Benedict in his first celebration of this Mass as Pope, made a fabulous connect between the washing of feet and our preparation for Holy Mass and Communion.  The washing of feet by the priest at Mass, is a sign of how the Christ in the sacrament of penance removes also the filth from our souls.  Christ is perpetually on His knees before each one of us, ready to wash us clean when we are dirty.   The possibilities are endless. 

Returning to my theological and liturgical "hooks", I see this rite a moment in which the congregation is being allowed to witness something which is a matter of profound intimacy between Christ the High Priest and the priest alter Christus. You are being allowed to see and hear a dialog that is not really intended primarily for your ears.

Remember, Peter did not grasp Christ’s explanation when He said, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand".  Jesus said to Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you.” For He knew who was to betray Him; that was why He said, “You are not all clean.” (John 13:7-11) One of them was not clean because He was going to betray the Lord and also betray the solemn charge laid on him to serve in the manner of an alter Christus among the people. He was betraying his priesthood and not merely Christ Himself. Again, this is in the context of the Mass of Holy Thursday, not just any Mass. Washing the feet of men underscores the connection between Christ’s washing His Apostles feet (service) and the institution of Holy Orders (service).

Try seeing this another way next time you witness it.

The Church is teaching the PRIEST who he should be. The priest, as your servant in your parish, shows in his words and deeds and instruction also how you should be to each other. The priest forms you lay people. However, this time you are being allowed to watch part of the priest’s own ongoing formation from Christ Himself in action in the Church’s liturgy. You are witnessing your priest being shaped into the kind of priest Christ wants for you. 

To my mind, THAT is the meaning of this rite. This is why there cannot be the confusion of roles and the confusion of icons and images in this moment in this Mass on this day. This is a male thing, speaking to the needs of a male priest, needing to be shaped by the male Christ into the kind of priest who is your spiritual father.

I repeat: this does not exclude the other possible meanings of how Christians should minister to each other.  It is the context that focuses us on this particular dimension of Christ’s action, which has many layers of meanings.

I am sure that there is lots of emotion being stirred up in this. I am sure that some find it “meaningful” to see women have their feet washed.  However, that completely obscures the moment of this Mass and this moment of the Sacred Triduum.   I think it is just plain wrong on many levels.

I hope this clarifies some things or provokes some thought about the rite.

Please pray for me, since I will be doing this in a few short hours.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Robert Thornton says:

    Dr. Edward Peters has posted interesting remarks at http://www.canonlaw.info/a_footfight.htm.

  2. Michael Dunphy says:

    For remarks from someone with a more traditional outlook than Dr. Peters, please consider http://old-oligarch.blogspot.com/2004_04_01_old-oligarch_archive.html#108094107763735521

  3. Jeff says:

    I think that the Church and society and people in general are going to have to come to grips with the fact that men and women are different. These are two different ways of being persons that go right to the core of our being and will be true for all eternity.

    People’s loss of this sense of difference makes it very difficult for them to come to grips with the radical evil of homosexuality and makes it almost impossible for them to grasp why there could possibly be an all male priesthood.

    My young priest tonight mentioned that women ought to be obedient to their husbands! Admittedly, it was an indult crowd, but still… There’s a message you never hear. Even if you DO hear it, it’s surrounded with caveats. We’re a society that hates its own children–we’ve forgotten what it means to be human. To rise to the level of the pagans of Christ’s time would be an advance. We’re in big trouble…but we have a great Pope.

  4. Robert Thornton says:

    Mr. Dunphy, thanks for that link, which I should not otherwise have seen.

  5. Robert Thornton says:

    As for wives obeying their husbands, I imagine that objection to this comes more often from husbands who wish to evade their responsibility to guide than from wives who do not wish to submit themselves to such guidance.

  6. Norman says:

    I sat in the front row at Good Friday Service today, and saw the priest prostrate. I was reminded of “The Church is teaching the priest who he should be”. I was moved by such a sight.

  7. Thank you, Fr. Z, for your illuminating entries, and most particularly, for this entry.
    If I may suggest, a proper response to the feminists would be this:
    “I am acting in accordance with the liturgical directives of Rome.
    If you have a problem with this, I suggest that you direct your objections
    to Rome, and not to me.”

  8. Cornelius says:

    While I enjoy and quite agree with the observations made by Fr. Z on this matter,
    I am given to understand by my Pastor that the U.S. Bishops (in the form of the
    USCCB) have said that it is permissible to wash the feet of women as well.

    This puts me in something of an obedience bind. Even if the USCCB is not acting
    properly in this regard, are we not obligated to obey our shepherds (unless,
    of course, they are leading us into sin, which I don’t think is the case in
    this situation)?

  9. Philip Sandstrom says:

    An interesting and perhaps informative source for furthering this discussion —
    since from the ‘classical days of the Fathers of the Church’ — is to look at and meditate on the meaning of Chapter 53 of the Rule of Saint Benedict “on the Reception of Guests”.

  10. Philip: Good idea. By all means post some of the references you have in mind!


  11. Philip Sandstrom says:

    I am sorry but I am not as clever as most using this site, and I do not know how to transfer for the text of Chapter 53 of the Rule of Saint Benedict to your site. It is easily found in several translations as well as the original Latin on the Internet. The point is that the visitor is to to received as the Christ and not only the Abbot but also all the monks are told to wah the feet of the guests as a sign of receiveing them as the Christ. It seems to me that here is a strong link with the Mandatum of Holy Thursday — wherein the Pastor can and should show hies serveice to all his community — not just the clergy or even just the ‘males’ – but rather the whole community he serves as Pastor. Of course, it can be tied in with ‘ordination’ at the Last Supper, as you do but I do not think that is the only meaning or even its clearest one — it seems that the ‘rule’ put forward by the Christ is more general and open to all the Baptized at least, as is the other Mandatum (do this in remembrance of me) which is at least one of the scriptual ‘rules for the for the Eucharist itself. {I am sorry too my machine nor your website offers me the possiblitity of editing before sending this. I apologise for any mistakes of typing etc.}

  12. Thomas K says:

    At our Holy Thursday service our pastor did not wash feet, but the hands of both men and woman.

  13. Thomas: Hmm… I think the rite calls for the washing of FEET, not hands.

  14. Philip: On the other hand, pastors cannot simply authorize themselves to revise the rubrics of the Missale Romanum according to a custom of Benedictine hospitality and the spirituality of the Rule, as beautiful as they might be. Knowing the Rule as I do, I have a very hard time imagining St. Benedict would smile on such a thing as washing the feet of women or washing their hands if the Holy See had made clear directions about what was supposed to be done in the rite.

  15. Philip Sandstrom says:

    The Rule of St. Benedict does not indicate any difference for the sex/gender of
    the person being received as the Christ.

    Presumably the same sort of generous and humble ‘personal action of welcome’
    would be available for all guests in women’s Benedictine Abbeys too.

    And yes I do know exactly what the Roman Missal rubric does say —
    but I do think it would be useful to look seriously into the history of that
    rubric before drawing any ‘theological general conclusions’ about its meaning. As
    offtimes happens a rubric in a Missal from a particular time and place has been
    copied ‘uncritically’ without comment or question. I wonder if this is not the
    case in this instance.

  16. The historical roots of the rite, while interesting I am sure, would still not change the fact of the Church’s law on the matter. Until the law is changed, it ought to be respected.


  17. Philip Sandstrom says:

    But the question of ‘resourcement’ — going back to the roots of the liturgy was
    just the point of the ‘reforms’ of the liturgy from well before the Second Vatican
    Council — from at least the time of Dom Gueranger in the 19th Century (and he
    was not inventing novelties, but was drawn to the good sources to find his way,
    lead his monks and write his books. And this effort of his though heavily tinged
    with late 19th century French Romanticism about Medieval Monasticism was
    appealing to the best of the past based on the best available information. It
    was not ‘holding fast to rubrical usages’ no matter their history and development.
    Reasonably to do otherwise is really the worst sort of archeism, and relying on
    ‘developments’ which really are ‘warping’ of the original sense of the ceremony
    and the rubrics. This ‘warping’ imposes a secondary sense/development as primary
    which is really a very strange way of doing things — if one is interested in
    ‘what it really means’ on our way to living the Life of the Trinity. We should be
    at least as willing as Dom Gueranger to look closely at what we are doing, while
    avoiding his romantic nostalgias.

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