QUAERITUR: Holy Thursday Mandatum and female feet. Wherein advice is sought and Fr. Z ranteth.

foot-washingFrom a reader:

As it is Lent, it is undoubtedly time to ask the question of women having their feet washed on Holy Thursday.  I am well aware (from reading your blog) that it is contrary to law and custom to have women have their feet washed during the Mandatum on Holy Thursday.  However, I am somewhat deficient in cite-able resources to support this claim, particularly with the recent translational corrections to the Roman Missal that I haven’t yet studied in-depth.

Apparently, our pastor is considering opening up this year’s rite to include women for, as you may have guessed, reasons of “hospitality”, “inclusivity”, and “pastoral” reasons. [Dreadful reasons.]  Several of us young (20s-30s), conservative members of the parish would like to respectfully present a case to our pastor expressing why we find this practice to be distasteful, and would like to have concrete references to cite when doing so.

Can you offer any guidance?  I wish not to speak for myself or my own opinion, but rather that of Holy Church and Her sacred traditions.

First, if you have something to say to the pastor, make an appointment and go say it!  Respectfully, with a smile, and briefly.

This whole debate has been cleared up more than once by the Holy See, especially in the 1988 document Paschales solemnitatis of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments.

Moreover, the rubrics of the 2002 Missale Romanum retain the viri selecti.  Viri cannot include “females”.  Viri is an exclusive term.

I don’t believe any Conference of Bishops has ever received explicit approval from the Holy See for a variation, and only the Holy See can do that.

Conferences of bishops, individual bishops, and pastors all lack the authority to change this on their own.

To do it is wrong.


Click to buy!

When you go to meet with the pastor, take several Say The Black Do The Red coffee mugs, with one for the pastor as a gift.

Also, you might take a big thermos of Mystic Monk Coffee!

Mystic Monk, roasted and shipped by Carmelite MEN – viri – in Wyoming, is sure to put the pastor in a good frame of mind.

Mystic Monk Coffee, administered regularly and in large quantities helps priests to see reason.

Take it from me!

I’m a priest, I drink Mystic Monk Coffee in large quantities regularly, and I am exceptionally reasonable!  No liturgical abuses from me.

Therefore, I promise that, if enough people buy enough Mystic Monk Coffee, all liturgical abuses will end!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    When I came into the Church in the early 90s, I went to Holy Thursday at the Cathedral parish, and women were among those getting their feet washed. I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed. Of course this was long before I started going to the EF Mass exclusively. Thanks for letting me know.

  2. acardnal says:

    I’m not a doctor nor do I play one on TV, but all should gratefully follow the prophet Fr. Z and buy and drink Mystic Monk coffee in order to eliminate liturgical abuses. I buy and drink it and where ever I attend Mass, the clergy Say the Black and Do the Red for my wrath can be overflowing in my missives to the priest and his bishop when abuses are observed.

  3. St. Epaphras says:

    “Therefore, I promise that, if enough people buy enough Mystic Monk Coffee, all liturgical abuses will end!”

    If only ’twere so… I’d get our pastor a year-long subscription to MM Coffee. ;-) As it is, planning to skip to a parish (in a neighboring diocese) with amazing and orthodox priests for this coming Holy Thursday in order to avoid seeing the washing of our wonderfully DIVERSE group of feet, half or more of them belonging to females. And to avoid seeing photos of such diversity and inclusivity (is this a word?) being proudly taken.

    Men who don’t fear women — it’s a wonderful thing!

  4. irishgirl says:

    Before I started going to the TLM exclusively, at least a couple of times on Holy Thursday I got my feet washed. But back then I was ‘young and stupid’….
    Now I know better….

  5. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    If I’m known for anything around here, it’s for seeking enforcement of law as written, so everything Fr. Z has set out above is correct. But it’s okay, I think, to ask some further questions about the rite itself, as I did here: http://www.canonlaw.info/a_footfight.htm. Reactions welcome, of course.

    I still say, the most practical solution to the annual foot fight is to drop this OPTIONAL rite from parish celebrations, and move it to the Chrism Mass, where the bishop would wash the feet of 12 priests.

    Or is that too easy? [You obviously hate women and want to repress them and deny them active participation. o{]:¬) ]

  6. Cathy says:

    In my parish, this has evolved into several chairs and bowls of water so everyone who wants it gets washed feet. You go up, get feet washed, then the next person comes up and you wash their feet. Forgive me my participation in this last year.

  7. DLe says:

    At least it’s not like my university’s Catholic center, where everyone is invited to wash each other’s feet.

  8. Moreover, the rubrics of the 2002 Missale Romanum retain the viri selecti. Viri cannot include “females”. Viri is an exclusive term.

    And the English version in the newly translated Roman Missal 3e is plain enough:

    10. After the Homily, where a pastoral reason suggests it, the Washing of Feet follows.

    11. The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place. Then the Priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each one, and, with the help of the ministers, pours water over each one’s feet and then dries them. (bf emphasis added)

  9. Blaise says:

    Henry Edwards – the English of the new translation is far less plain than the Latin as it only says “men” which is of course the tranlsation for homines (which could include women) as well as viri. Or do you think every time it says “homines” we should have “men and women” in the translation.
    Dr Peters – if you can ensure that the Chrism mass is celebrated on Maundy Thursday then fine. But as many dioceses seem to celebrate it on Tuesday or Wednesday of Holy Week I would thinkthat would be odd. But certainly at the Cathedral the foot washees should include any priests available to have their feet washed.

    Fr Z – thank you as ever. Do the “viri” have to be adults or can they be boys? [I once argued that viri could include boys. I no longer do. I think viri have to be adults. In any event, boys in the context of the mandatum would be preferable to any females of any age.]

  10. Imrahil says:

    If feminists could be trusted with such thing as a compromise, here’s where to take it. That said,
    a) Laws as long as they stand need to be obeyed. [I wouldn’t 100% be sure that viri is exclusively and not only pars-pro-totoly male; [It is. Vir is male, not female. It is exclusive. Period.] English “men” and even German “Männer” would not; but that’s a linguistic question and it does indeed not say “homines” or “laici”.]
    b) Feminists do not take compromises.

  11. Blaise says:

    I have just read Dr Peters’ linked article and I note he has answered my question about “viri” and boys – apparently a vir is canonnically aged 18 or more.

  12. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    A gallon of gas, $ 3.95. A Hostess Twinkie two-pack, $ 1.15. Someone questioning Fr. Z’s translation of a Latin term, priceless.

  13. acardnal says:

    @ Henry Edwards: do you have a cite/reference from the new GIRM dated June 2011 as it applies to the new MR, 3rd Edition?
    thank you anyone out there.

  14. benedictgal says:

    I went through a similar situation two weeks ago at our parish meeting. When the Mandatum was discussed, I reminded our pastor that the Roman Missal, Third Typical Edition, specifically states “viri”, men. It did not go well. He had wanted to Extraordinary Ministers to have their feet washed (men and women), but, I gently reminded him that the Mandatum, according to the rubrics, was restricted to men. He brought up the issue of “pastoral concern.” I told him that we needed to be obedient to Rome and the documents of the Holy See. The exchange was not very good, as I was chided for wanting to adhere to Rome.

  15. In my current parishes, I have only had males for this ritual, although I did have some teenage boys. That represented no change at one parish, but it was a change at the other, where prior to my arrival, a variety of things were tried over the years. When I instituted only males, I didn’t make a thing about it, I simply did it, and I received no comments. I know there was some buzz about it, but it never showed up, say, at pastoral council where I can imagine a question might have come up.

    When I took that step, I didn’t know how much flack I’d get, and my backup plan then and now is, “if this becomes a cause of division or unhappiness–that only males’ feet are washed, then let’s drop it.”

    I would recommend the parishioners who asked about this propose that as a solution to their pastor. If their pastor is really concerned about inclusion, then drop the ritual.

    If there is someone who feels strongly about foot-washing, then let someone organize a prayer meeting or something, at which folks feet or hands get washed. If the pastor wants to practice humility–which is important (and one of the things that this ritual means to me, as a priest–washing the feet of the people I serve), then again, create opportunities apart from this Mass.

    My point is, all the good objectives that might be offered as reasons to make this change can be pursued in other ways and the parishioners in question could suggest that approach instead as an alternative.

  16. Slappo says:

    Dr. Edwards said:
    “I still say, the most practical solution to the annual foot fight is to drop this OPTIONAL rite from parish celebrations, and move it to the Chrism Mass, where the bishop would wash the feet of 12 priests.”

    What about those dioceses that don’t have 12 clergy? ;-) Mine might be the only one, or at least the only one in the US. We might have 12 clergy if you include permanent deacons, and the one permanent deacon and one priest in our diocese that is retired…

  17. benedictgal says:

    Slappo, priests are not the only clergy. Even if you don’t have 12 priests, as you yourself noted, the deacons and seminarians could certainly make up the short fall. You can also round up laymen to make up the difference.

  18. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Slappo, law and policy deal with the typical cases, not the idiosyncratic. [I never thought I would live so long as to see this string of words. It’s the “Slappo” that really does it. I love the blogosphere. Give the man a Twinkie. (That phrase could go on a mug.)] I’m sure something could be worked out for diocese that didn’t have 12 priests.

  19. Dr. Edward Peters says:


  20. Margaret says:

    At the risk of seeming manipulative, perhaps the ideal group of people to approach the priest would be, as noted above, young, respectful, smiling, brief, and also female.

    I, for one, am really tired of liturgical nonsense being imposed in the name of making us women feel “included.” Honestly, Padres, we’re tough enough not to have our delicate little feelings hurt as the men, only the men, go up to get their feet washed. Having a group of women deliver the request would undercut the “pastoral” argument the priest might be inclined to make.

  21. Norah says:

    When Cardinal O’Malley received permission from Rome to use females for pastoral reasons didn’t that give all the bishops permission to use females?

  22. rayrondini says:

    Our priest has said he’s considering this precisely because Card. O’Malley once received permission to do so, so I’m interested in a valid response to that. That is, anything more substantial than an argument which essentially boils down to “If all of your prelate friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?”

  23. acardnal says:

    To “use females for pastoral reasons” means what?

  24. One of my favorite lines these days is, “You don’t have to like it; you just have to do it.” That might be a useful retort to anyone who insists upon disregarding a clear instruction in the rubrics that was not changed in the most recent Roman Missal.

  25. benedictgal says:

    Margaret, I am not exactly young and I vociferously defended the issue of “viri”, even noting that Cardinal O’Malley’s situation was more than likely a one and done deal. I am still willing to defend the issue of “men only” because that is what the rite mandates. It’s just quite frustrating.

  26. benedictgal says:

    Rayrondini, this was not a blanket permission. In fact, I think that after that incident, he returned to washing only the feet of men. Interestingly enough, I have not seen the USCCB petition Rome for recognition to allow for the inclusion of women in the Mandatum. That might be something to consider telling your pastor.

  27. frdanbecker says:

    Slappo lives in a very small Catholic town (ooh ooh ooh ooh)
    On Holy Thursday yeah, there’s not 12 priests around (ooh ooh ooh ooh)
    Hang on, Slappo. Slappo, hang on.

  28. Suburbanbanshee says:

    There’s always the nuclear argument, where you have a woman bring up the Book of Ruth’s foot stuff. But that’s nuclear, because of course you don’t want to embarrass priests with sexual or even marriage innuendo, and I sure as heck wouldn’t want to bring up the topic to a priest! But if you have someone female, older, and very earthy in your parish (like Juliet’s nurse, or one of the humorous alto ladies in our choir), she might be able to come up with something to say along these lines….

    But we’re seeing less of that around here. I guess there are some Protestant churches that really make a big thing of non-priestish, non-apostolic footwashing uses, though; Get Religion had a story about a feuding Baptist church that did a mass footwashing and forgiveness session.

  29. cwillia1 says:

    Viri means adult males. Now selecti begs the question of which adult males. And I would propose that the logical adult males to select are male heads of households who play a prominent role in parish life. These are the men who have quasi-priestly roles in the domestic church and in the parish. They should dress “suit”ably for the event – that is in business suits. I can imagine lots of reasons why the pastor would choose to pass.

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  31. Bill Foley says:

    from Bill Foley

    Margaret, you are a practical genius; Teresa of Avila would be proud of you!

    Yes, get those beautiful, papist women to approach the pastor. By the way, all papist women are beautiful. Any priest worth of his manhood would yield.

  32. Centristian says:


    “I am still willing to defend the issue of ‘men only’ because that is what the rite mandates.”

    Oh, had you only said “because that is what the mandatum mandates”. Alas.

  33. chantgirl says:

    I’ve always been slightly confused as to why the washing of feet is done to laymen, because I always thought of this part of the Last Supper to be part of the ordination ritual of the Apostles. Are there any good resources for reading about this, and why laymen have their feet washed? And Suburbanbanshee, please understand that just because altos have the most interesting parts to sing does not mean that they have the monopoly on humor ;)

  34. catholicmidwest says:

    I’d just like to see the foot-washing thing go away entirely. People misinterpret the whole thing every year anyway. I usually skip this mass during holy week because it’s a mess.

  35. catholicmidwest says:

    I really think that the emphasis should be on the institution of the Eucharist, full tilt. That’s the big thing that happened on Holy Thursday.

    Forget the foot-stockings-dirty toes-assorted grinning people, misinterpreting the whole thing part. I can’t stand to watch it.

  36. kittenchan says:

    Unfortunately, any priest who doesn’t want to wash the feet of only viri selecti need only direct the polite crowd of petitioners to this statement on the USCCB website (http://old.usccb.org/liturgy/q&a/general/feet.shtml) and say, “But the bishops of the US have said it was ok (if not downright encouraged) to have women among those who have their feet washed. I have zero need or reason to change my ways; have a nice day.”

    Any bishop could say the same thing; and in fact my own bishop Olmsted (he of otherwise orthodox reputation) uses it as his defense of the widespread, entrenched practice here.

    The irritating kicker is the little “disclaimer” at the bottom of the page:

    “This is the latest statement of this Secretariat on the question. No subsequent legislation or instructions have necessitated a modification in the statement.”

    Since the article was written in 1987, and several documents have been put out by the Holy See since then basically saying, “Really, NO, you can’t do this; STOP IT”, the disclaimer is not only wrong (and a lie to boot), but sounds rather peevish and truculent to me.

    Until the USCCB gets their heads out of the sand, practically speaking there isn’t a leg for the concerned American Catholic to stand on.

  37. benedictgal says:


    I was already in the throes of a severe migraine when I wrote this brief reply. I believe there is a deeper mystery to ponder with the Mandatum than the mere aspect of device. If we stop at just the matter of serving one another, then we have missed the significance of what takes place on Holy Thursday.

    Jesus was instituting not only the Holy Eucharist, but the Priesthood as well. The priests of the Old Covenant had to undergo ritual purification before they could offer the sacrifice in the Temple. The precepts laid down by God the Father in the Old Testament were brought to fulfillment by God the Son. The Aaronic priesthood foreshadowed the priesthood of the New Covenant. When Jesus told Peter that those who were already clean did not need a bath, only their feet washed, this foreshadows the ritual purification of our priests prior to the actual offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass. This, Jesus was preparing the Apostles for their new roles in the New and Eternal Covenant.

    Keeping the same theme, recall that one of the Psalms calls blessed the feet of the man who brings the Good News. This Psalm is often used in the memorials of the Apostles and Evangelists. The feet are one of the lowliest parts of our bodies, especially during the time of Jesus. At that time, feet came into contact with the crud of the streets and fields, worse for those who lacked footwear.

    While many parishes obviously do not have 13 clergy for the Mandatum, if we take into account this particular interpretation, then, rubric aside, the matter of ” viri” would make sense. This is the point we tried to make to our pastor last year when the matter came up.

  38. benedictgal says:


    The problem in using the USCCB as a justification is that the statement came a year before The one from the Holy See. Statements made by the Congregation for Divine Worship trump ones made by a national conference. Furthermore, why would Cardinal O’Malley have sought permission from the Holy See? Furthermore, why hasn’t the USCCB not petitioned Rome for an indult to include women in the Mandatum? To my knowledge the USCCB has not made such a petition.

  39. Panterina says:

    Thanks for the link, kittenchan. There’s something to be said when the link says “old”, but it’s still accessible.
    What I found depressing was the sentence “While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which mentions only men (“viri selecti”), it may nevertheless be said that…” etc. You just cannot win a “do the red, say the black” argument under those premises: “We know what the rubrics say, but we’ll do otherwise”.

  40. acardnal says:

    I looked in the new altar missal from LTP that my parish uses. It specifically says “men” in the Red rubric for feet washing at the Holy Thursday Mass. I think that this is THE rubric in the newly translated Missal Romanum. It also says “men” in red in my hand missal from MTF. I asked my parish priest if he plans to use only males for the feet washing ceremony, and he said “yes’. Hallelujah!

  41. kittenchan says:

    Benedictgal: I know the USCCB’s statement is outdated, overrided, illegitimate, and deeply silly. However, since it is the USCCB’s last word on the subject, and since it is painfully obvious that the USCCB has zero plans to alter or recant it (hence the stubborn little postscript at the end, basically saying “Yeah, so some other stuff has come out, but we don’t deem it important enough to affect what’s written here”), and finally since there’s the notion here that the USCCB has the final say in the US*, any and every priest and bishop who wishes to give weight to his decision to allow the washing of female feet need only pull it out, sit back, and essentially say, “The science is settled; what’re you going to do about it?” If they’ve ignored Rome this many times, what’s one more document? That’s why I said “practically speaking” there’s nothing we can do.

    I do not agree with this. I am angry, disappointed, and frustrated about this. But the bottom line is the USCCB does not care and most likely (as apparent from the trend so far) will not change. Do I think we should give up and do nothing? NO! We should bug the everliving daylights out of them until they get their heads out of wherever their heads are on this subject, realize that rules apply to them, too, and Rome doesn’t write, publish, and disseminate documents just because it’s a fun Latin translation exercise for the interns.

    *probably due to that whole thing about local bishops being little less than the final arbiter for every rule from when to stand during Mass to whether Communion can be offered under both species, combined with the wrongheaded notion that an official group of bishops (regardless of any real limitations on their authority) must necessarily overrule any lone bishop.

  42. benedictgal says:

    Perhaps it might be time for some brave soul to write to both the USCCB and the CDW to finally settle this matter once and for all. The outdated USCCB statement is superseded by, not only by Paschalis Solemnitatis, but also by the Roman Missal.

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