Foot Washing on Holy Thursday… and so it begins

Last year Pope Francis went to a jail on the edge of Rome and washed the feet of a couple of females

Today in the WSJ (Wisconsin State Journal) there is a rather feeble attempt to stir a little more controversy about His Mightiness, Most Rev. Robert C. Morlino, by the grace of God Bishop of Madison.

In the Spirit: Diocesan ban on washing women’s feet stays in place

Just a few weeks after his election last spring, Pope Francis stunned papal observers by washing the feet of two women during a Holy Week ritual.  [That is supposed to impress us all: No one should ever obey the Church’s laws again!  Because: Who are we to judge?]
The rite — on Maundy Thursday, just prior to Easter Sunday — re-enacts Jesus’ washing of the feet of his 12 male disciples at his Last Supper. Traditionally, popes washed the feet only of men. [Exactly like Jesus before them and exactly according to the Church’s liturgical law.]

Catholic traditionalists [tisk tick… no.  Catholics who obey the Church’s laws.  Don’t accept their premise.] believe the men-only rule should remain — at least for everyone below the pope — and many canon lawyers say church law agrees with that position. [But the WSJ knows better than all those people, right?] However, some dioceses in this country had begun including [Sorry… “dioceses” don’t include or exclude.] women long before the pope’s example, and a statement on the website for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says that to include women is “an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord.” [LOL!  This underscores something that we must be wary of when reading anything from the USCCB about liturgical law, especially when written at a certain time.  Not only does that phrase not have anything to do with the law or rubrics, but, often, statements that are actually descriptions are taken to be norms.  For example, look at statements about Communion in the hand: they describe that the norm (read=usual) way of receiving Communion is standing, in the hand, etc.  Read words.  Think.]

Three years ago, Madison Catholic Bishop Robert Morlino issued guidelines that gave priests the option of either using only men or not celebrating the ritual at all. [NB: Those are the two options given BY THE CHURCH!  The footwashing rite is already an option!  The Church’s law says that only men may be the recipients of this footwashing.  Bp. Morlino’s guidelines do nothing but reiterate the Church’s laws, which bishops and priests are obliged to follow.] Given the heightened attention to foot-washing last year, some parishioners thought Morlino might re-evaluate his position. [Again: Bp. Morlino’s position (note how they frame this in terms of personal preference rather than in terms of the Church’s law) is merely that of the Church’s clear rubrics, which have been carefully explained by the CDW: MEN… ONLY MEN.]

That has not happened. Brent King, the diocesan spokesman, said priests have the same two options this year — men-only or no ritual. Holy Thursday Mass falls on April 17. Easter is April 20.

As has become his tradition, [Imagine: the bishop of a diocese has made it his tradition to celebrate Holy Thursday.  What’s next?  Good Friday?!?] Morlino will celebrate Holy Thursday Mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Downtown Madison, King said, where he will wash the feet of 12 seminarians.

Last year, at least two priests — at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Madison and Nativity of Mary in Janesville — took a pass on the ritual due to the male-only rule. [Unclear: does that mean they opted not to have the rite at all or does it mean that they washed the feet of women?]


There follow a couple of other local stories.

Again: The Pope can do X, Y or Z, but the rest of us are obliged – by the promises we made at ordination – to obey the Church’s laws.   All of us have two choices: don’t do the rite, or do the rite in the proper way.

Watch now for all sorts of people demanding that bishops and priests violate the law because of what Francis did.  And watch all manner of clerics hiding behind the Pope when they choose to break the law.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liturgy Science Theatre 3000 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Move it to the Chrism Mass, have bishops wash the feet of twelve priests, and be done with it.

  2. Johnno says:

    It’d be nice that if every time Pope Francis exercised his privileges that he would also reinforce the reasons for Church Law and why what he does doesn’t apply to the rest of us. Though the question one might ask is whether or not he’s aware of it in the first place? I mean I’m sure he’s innocently aware of the significance of the red shoes and martyrdom… Even I didn’t know until it became a thing in the secular press.

  3. Fr. Hamilton says:

    I notice the Vatican website is still offering no information on what the Pope will do this Holy Thursday for the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Have we heard any leaks of what this year’s personal practice will be by Pope Francis?

  4. John F. Kennedy says:

    Dr. Peters, why do you think that would have much impact? I’m certain that there are several Bishops who wouldn’t follow the law. In fact I know of a Pope who probably wouldn’t.

  5. tskrobola says:

    The Holy Father knew before he washed the feet at the prison that it would lend credibility to abuses in this particular commemoration and that it would cut directly against the Church’s Biblical tradition. This is not some fresh-out-of-the-seminary priest circa 1970. This is a wise, tenured man who happens to be the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

    And for anybody who wishes to downplay the significance of the Holy Father’s prison foot washing, I am pretty sure that Francis was in earnest about his actions’ countervailing significance, both culturally and liturgically.

  6. Sandy says:

    It was disappointing to read in our church bulletin this past weekend, that the “liturgical director” was looking for volunteers for the foot washing. I should never be surprised at what I read or hear. Our diocese needs a Bishop Burke or……

  7. Cantor says:

    Dr. Peters – I’d add one caveat: make it twelve priests who have been brought to the priesthood personally by that bishop. It would be interesting to see how many could.

  8. yatzer says:

    I know of one parish where they have been washing people’s hands, which makes me think of Pilate not the Lord.

  9. This a question to which I don’t know the answer. I assume that as chief legislator the Pope has the authority to change or establish Church law. But does he have the authority, that other bishops and priests do not have, to violate existing Church law that has not been changed and remains in effect? Or does he as a practical matter simply have the power–as opposed to proper authority–to do so, because he has no superior to call him to account?

  10. Magpie says:

    For me, the first red indicator lamp went on with the foot-washing incident…

  11. Kathleen10 says:

    Our parish may be setting up for something. For two weeks we have heard how Jesus himself broke with tradition, for example talking to the Samaritan woman at the well. That was mentioned for the last two weeks. Also that we get upset about the breaking of traditions, “like Pharisees”.
    We also heard those immortal words, “…as Pope Francis said, who are we to judge”. It was not in reference to any particular judgment we are making, just our general judgmental attitude that apparently many Catholics demonstrate. It seems we should make no judgments about anything at all. This all makes me pretty sad because I really hate even indirectly criticizing priests, when my heart wants to support and appreciate them. I wish they would stop putting us in this position with all this nonsense.

  12. Magpie says:

    Kathleen10: Put not your trust in princes.

  13. BLB Oregon says:

    The inmates were not merely mixed in gender. They were incarcerated for a crime. They were not all Catholic. At least one was Muslim. As Archbishop, our Holy Father frequently went to jails, hospitals, and hospices for this ritual.These are populations who by their very situation are quite unlike a typical Catholic parish. Last year, he kissed the feet of each of them.

    I don’t think he was trying to set a precedent for every Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the entire world. Do American Catholics really want their pastors to choose 12 minors for the foot-washing ceremony every year? If we are not to imitate his selection of only those age 21 and under (100% of those the Holy Father selected in 2013), why should we imitate the inclusion of women (17% of those he chose)?

    I think he was using his position as the chief liturgist to make an exception for an extraordinary circumstance. If he wanted to change the rubrics, I am sure he knows how to get that process moving. So far, he has not. Therefore, he has seen fit to keep this sort of choice an exception.

    Yes, I wish he would say that his choice was exceptional, and why. Say what his action meant and what it did not mean with regards to the rubrics of the Universal Church. Otherwise, making an exception which is not explained is as likely as not to cause strife, which is quite the opposite of his intention.

  14. Lin says:

    Until the Pope washed women’s feet last year, I was unaware it was to be reserved for men only. When I was catechized in the 50’s and 60’s, the practice of foot washing was unheard of. It has been my experience, that women participate in this ceremony in most churches in our diocese. I have never been comfortable with many of these new rituals introduced after Vatican II. And as much as I try to learn on my own concerning what is acceptable practice, or not, it is not always possible as a lay person to know which practices are legit. We need to rely on holy and faithful priests and bishops to teach us through example. I am certain that most Catholics do not know that this practice should be reserved for men only.

  15. Geoffrey says:

    “I am certain that most Catholics do not know that this practice should be reserved for men only.”

    I agree. I have never seen it done any other way than the “come one, come all” approach.

  16. BLB Oregon says:

    –“I am certain that most Catholics do not know that this practice should be reserved for men only.”

    I agree. I have never seen it done any other way than the “come one, come all” approach.–

    I would say that by choosing to wash the feet of a group of mixed-gender, mixed-affiliation juveniles, the Pope paradoxically woke a good number of Catholics to the fact that the Holy Thursday liturgies in their parishes have not been conducted according to an official set of rubrics.

    OTOH–and I am not trying to be unkind–there are a fair number of Catholics who have not been educated to think in terms of binding rubrics at all. They don’t know that a layperson has any right to concern himself or herself with how liturgies are conducted, but rather think that laypeople get to “vote with their feet” concerning whether they like how liturgies are conducted at a particular parish. It is all they know.

  17. benedetta says:

    There’s kind of an absurdity that secular press tries to wade into the particulars of Catholic liturgical or theological tradition, at all, never mind that they pretty much never get it right. When was the last time you read in a secular regional publication a surface analysis of, say, Buddhist practices coupled with a couple glancing looks at their worldwide leader with a spin based on some American interest group? Something like this makes me wonder, and the foot washing tradition on Holy Thursday matters to you, secular press that seems to hardly ever have anything decent to say about Catholicism generally, why exactly? They always have a punchline at the ready for why they want people to care and get all invested in the view they propose…If they can’t even seemingly understand and report properly the background, why would we care as to their “helpful suggestions” for what we all ought to do?

  18. mburn16 says:

    ” that the “liturgical director””

    I’d give quite a bit to see our church adopt the idea of a liturgical director who could school himself/herself in the proper conducts of various rites. Instead, we do things in a committee approach that…well…it could be better, lets leave it at that.

  19. BLB Oregon says:

    The American media has a lot of opinions and breathless reports about the British royal family, too, which is just as ludicrous. The world over, the media will have opinions about anyone with a face that will sell a magazine.

  20. jm says:

    “There’s kind of an absurdity that secular press tries to wade into the particulars of Catholic liturgical or theological tradition…”

    Not nearly as much absurdity as that of a Pope shredding tradition and then appealing to tradition for the allegiance of faithful Catholics. You have to engage in willful denial to pretend Francis and his approach is represents a hermeneutic of continuity. No wonder confusion reigns. It is not in spite of Rome but because of it. From the front page of the Washington Post, more clear teaching:

  21. Daniel W says:

    My understanding is that exceptions to the all-male feet rule can be granted by the Holy See if the ordinary asks, for particular circumstances and with a sufficient reason. I will bet Card. Bergolio, as archbishop, had sought and been granted that exception for the particular situations he chose to celebrate the ritual. It only makes sense to continue this as pope, ignoring the pharisaical scandal and letting the local bishops do their job of catechesis regarding liturgical law.

    His example did not send the message you can break the rules, it sent the message that if you want an exception to a liturgical rule, ask for it and then stick by the decision. Of course the media and others will read whatever message they want. Faithful and informed Catholics should be open to learning from the pope’s example. We need to catechise the faithful that they should seek exemptions and dispensations when necessary.

    Having said that, if the local bishop does not want to request exemptions for his priests, that is his prerogative. I tend to think that some priests who flaunt the law would never wash the feet of the disadvantaged in a setting like the chapel of a women’s prison, etc. The example of washing the feet of seminarians seems excellent and sends a message to local priests of the importance of interacting with young men to promote vocations.

  22. Arele says:

    Uh oh…I was in RCIA in 2010 and our entire class, men and women, were told we would be the ones getting our feet washed on Holy Thursday, and that would be our RCIA class for that night. (There were only 8 of us, so they had to recruit 4 others from the congregation). There were five men and three women in our class (a small class).

    I had no idea that this was against the laws of the church.

    I read last year about how controversial it was that the pope washed the feet of two women. I just thought that meant that the pope wasn’t supposed to wash the feet of women but diocesan priests could for some reason – like it was a “low mass” kind of thing to do for our priests, or like “Eucharistic ministers” as they are called in our parish, or something.

    This just makes me wonder how many other things we are doing that are in violation of church law.

  23. Pingback: For Those Losing Faith in Humanity -

  24. Militans says:

    When I did my confirmation (about 7 years ago now), the practise in the deanery / pastoral area was for all candidates to join in the rite in the oldest church of the town. Candidates prostrated themselves before the altar along with the priest and then had to wash the feet as everyone from the congregation came forward.

  25. NoraLee9 says:

    I have seen the Washing of the Feet done in the Traditional Rite Twice: Once at the SSPX Chapel in Long Island and once at Holy Innocents in NYC. It was beautifully done both times. At the SSPX, the fellas sat in folding chairs on either side of the aisle. 6 & 6. At HI. the fellas were on the Altar. This was also the first time I saw the Altar of Repose done at HI. I remember the whole experience was so moving that I kept tearing up. It is one of the times in my life that I was moved to tears by my sins….

  26. Volanges says:

    When I came to my present parish they were washing hands and I worked to get that changed, repeating the quote “in Holy Week only Pilate washed his hands”. When ‘foot washing’ was reinstituted, there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth because not ‘everyone’ was included, although women were because men, for some odd reason, didn’t want to show their feet. ???

    Once we got foot washing back, I worked to go to ‘all men’ as the rubrics call for. I finally got that for a few years but the new pastor insists on a mix of men, women and kids. I really don’t get it. Do the red, say the black. What is so difficult. I finally quit the liturgy committee after a priest stood up in a meeting, shook his finger at me and yelled, “We haven’t listened to Rome before and we’re not about to start now!”

  27. Vecchio di Londra says:

    Well,as we all know, the GIRM rubrics for Holy Thursday clearly state that the priest washes the feet of men (“viri”) as Christ did to his apostles. Who were men.
    To wash the feet of the ladies is just giving dissident feminists the false hope that they might one day be ordained in the apostolic succession.

  28. Ferde Rombola says:

    Volanges, did you report that priest to your bishop? If you did and the bishop did nothing, did you write to the dicastry for bishops at the Vatican? That’s the process.

    I wonder if the Pope is yet aware of the confusion he sows by the unbiblical, unCatholic actions and words by which he is often victimized. His request that emeritus Pope Benedict XVI examine and critique the text of one of his interviews is evidence he knows something is wrong. I hope he is starting to get it.

  29. John of Chicago says:

    Not to offend anyone but all this strikes me as a lot of digital “ink” being spilt over something of zero importance.[You are wrong. This is important. It underscores the fact that bishops and priests must obey the Church’s laws.] Meanwhile… this brief note from the Vatican Radio website may have real potential for good:

    (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis presided over a meeting of the heads of the Roman curial departments on Tuesday morning. [The rest is an off-topic rabbit hole, so I will delete it.]

  30. Vecchio di Londra says:

    “something of zero importance.”
    For any bishop be hounded by laissez-faire ‘c’atholic liberals for insisting on faithfulness to the obligatory rubric of the Liturgy is not of zero importance.
    Christ’s instituted sacraments and their punctilious observance are something of the utmost importance.
    A Vatican meeting about ‘Evangelii gaudium’ is completely irrelevant to this issue, and belongs in a different discussion.

  31. Vecchio di Londra says:

    corr. ‘For any bishop to be…etc’

  32. tskrobola says:

    Bravo, Vecchio di Londra….the saddest part about Francis’ loosey-goosey liturgical style is that the Church seemed to have adjusted so well to a more sober and reverential approach under Benedict — I’m afraid that many of these positive changes could be watered down before they really start to take hold in the culture.

    Even here in Kalamazoo Michigan the changes brought by the new Missal were sudden and very positive and went beyond the Missal’s rubrics — there has been an improvement in music at the Cathedral (the propers are sung in English in a chant-style, a massive improvement), and improvements in reverence. But these improvements could be lost in a blink if the Holy Father keeps leading by example in the wrong direction liturgically.

  33. Sonshine135 says:

    Up until last year, I too was unaware that the washing of feet was reserved for men alone. Every church I walked through the door at had the come one. come all approach as well. I am disheartened by this, and when we stop to think about something this visible being done, what other disobedience is happening behind the scenes?

  34. Sonshine135 says:

    “We haven’t listened to Rome before and we’re not about to start now!”

    …and there it is! Oh how I pray that the Bishops wake up to this abuse, and either shut these churches down or put a Priest at the head who will “clean house”.

  35. lizaanne says:

    Oh mercy – this does get wearying, doesn’t it.

  36. kjh says:

    It is painful to read about this. And it is not just about the ceremony of washing of the feet, but that is a very emblematic event where there are very clear and meaningful rules that are to be followed. There are so many “small” abuses (if any of them are actually “small” – as Fr. Z commented: “This is important. It underscores the fact that bishops and priests must obey the Church’s laws.”) At almost every Sunday Mass there are “little” things that routinely happen – the celebrant priest not wearing all vestments (most often eliminating the chasuble) being one of the most common. But there is often a very casual approach to so many aspects of the Mass that it starts to become distracting. It is very infrequent, for example, that we hear any Eucharistic prayer other than II. It is very infrequently that we recite the Confiteor, almost always opting for the shorter version of just the Kyrie. Homilies that have very little content related to the readings, often some kind of psychobabble. Encouraging applause at various times during Mass for various achievements of fellow parishioners. It all seems to be geared toward getting things done as quickly as possible. Are they small things? I don’t think so!

    It would be interesting if the secular press paid a little more attention to the teachings of the Church when it didn’t serve their agenda and delved into the reasons and logic behind things such as the pro-life movement, protection of “traditional” marriage, etc.

    I think that the foot washing ceremony has become like many other things – a “circus-like” atmosphere, where everyone and anyone comes up and washes feet, hands, etc. and are encouraged to wash each others’ feet, hands, etc. At least, those are things that I’ve seen in recent years. It seems that it would be better just to stop the practice, since it has taken on other significance that could probably be better expressed in other ways at other times, and return some solemnity to the Holy Thursday liturgy. Watering down the significance of this ceremony (no pun intended) seems to follow along with diminishing the importance of the priesthood, which is arguably one of the most important establishments in the world.

  37. Volanges says:

    Ferde Rombola says:
    Volanges, did you report that priest to your bishop? If you did and the bishop did nothing, did you write to the dicastry for bishops at the Vatican? That’s the process.
    I wish I could have but you can’t imagine how you feel when you’re the only one who cares. You start to question whether you’re just being unreasonable and you feel you’re being disrespectful of the priest, something your parents lectured you against through your entire childhood. 45 years later, it’s a lesson well learned. The idea of reporting this priest to our bishop, who had been his student in the seminary, left me feeling queasy.

  38. Siculum says:

    I’m ignorant, and I hope to learn from the canonists and canonists-at-heart among you. In the light of the law, does it matter that the washing of the feet on last year’s Maundy Thursday did in fact not take place within the actual Mass of the Lord’s Supper? My understanding is that the Holy Father did not celebrate Holy Mass at this prison.

    So if the washing of the feet was done outside of the Mass, then did it have to follow those liturgical norms? Or are these norms just norms for all times and places, not for just within Holy Mass itself?

    Someone’s comment earlier about “women not wanting to show their feet anyway” was as a humorous and well-taken point.

  39. JKnott says:

    The great grace of the Sacraments, through the gift of the priesthood, for the purpose of eternally knowing and loving a God who loves us, watered down or even overlooked in a spirit of disobedience for the sake of of stroking secular attachments to feelings of self-esteem and pride. What a sad and short lived exchange. For all practical purposes a vast number of our brethren in the Faith are operating as protestants and don’t even realize it. Prayer, humility and discipline are what is missing.

  40. FrJimTucker says:

    I am in a dilemma.
    I am a parochial vicar bound under Canon Law to obey my pastor, duly delegated by the bishop as my superior. Unfortunately, Holy Thursday foot washing for the past few years, since this current pastor was installed (even with the previous pastor) have included females. I feel I am forced to violate the Church’s teaching in this matter, or else cause a serious rift in the community.
    I have been ordained for eight years, and seriously want to do what is right, but that may mean to become pastor of a parish myself, with all the headaches that go along with that position. Even then, to propose what to many in this Archdiocese would seem a radical move. Even as a pastor, I may face a mutiny.
    What to do …

  41. SimonDodd says:

    kjh says: “It all seems to be geared toward getting things done as quickly as possible.” I think that many priests believe, rightly or not, that there is a norm or requirement promulgated by USCCB that the Mass not exceed one hour. It doesn’t matter whether that requirement exists. What matters, I think, for bishops to make explicitly clear that “in my diocese, the USCCB’s word isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. The Mass is over when it’s over.”

  42. SimonDodd says:

    Father Jim, in that situation, I would simply select only males. There is a temptation, I’m sure, to give a defense of following the rubric, to telegraph the decision in advance, to explain why you’re doing it. I understand. But any such defense will do no good and will only draw attention to the change. If you just do it, without comment, and if you don’t tell anyone in advance what’s being done, it may well be that it will pass without comment the first time.

  43. Lin says:

    Fr JimTucker……..Easy for me to say, but I would prefer that you follow the rubrics. When our parish was assigned a new pastor who is very progressive, I started to google some of the practices he implemented in our parish. Most if not all were absolutely against the rubrics and/or rules of the Church. At issue is that he is misleading many souls who do not know any better and do not have the curiosity to fact check. Raised and catechized pre-Vatican II, I have been very fortunate to know my faith better than most and have had many very holy, rule minding priests. I do not even remember when foot washing became common practice but how would we know that it should be men only, if not taught in some manner!?! We need more and better catechism!

  44. OrthodoxChick says:


    If I were in your shoes, I think I’d be feeling a tummy bug coming on for Holy Thursday evening.

  45. Sonshine135 says:


    This is where I think the Church Militant needs to have you back and provide air cover. It would be helpful if some of the laity on your liturgy committee or even an every day Parishioner wrote an article for your bulletin or spoke regarding the Cannon Law. This way, you are educating people without them realizing you are educating them, and it would inform your people ahead of time what to expect come Holy Thursday.

    You are the type of Priest that I would go to bat for in a heartbeat. Let me take the heat. Slowly but surely, you could gain control over the situation.

  46. daughter of poor gemma says:

    I know I’m late to the party, but like another commenter above, I am also a female convert who was asked to have her feet washed on the Holy Thursday before I was to be baptized. I declined (to my mind the ritual loses much of its intended significance if women are included), but as I was hanging up the phone, I heard the parish secretary say in the background, “I don’t know what to do, nobody’s ever declined before!”

  47. Pingback: Washing Women’s Feet? | Liturgy

  48. jhayes says:

    Vatican Insider:

    “On Holy Thursday Pope Francis is to celebrate the “In Coena Domini” mass at the St Mary of Providence Centre of the Don Gnocchi Foundation in Rome, where he will wash the feet of twelve disabled residents.

    Last year the Pope visited the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention centre – not far from the Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundation – where he washed the feet of twelve young offenders. The Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundation offers cutting-edge motor rehabilitation to patients suffering neurodegenerative diseases, including a therapy pool.

    The mass will be celebrated at the Centre (in the Casalotti zone in north-western Rome) at 5:30 pm and attended by residents, along with their families and staff from the Foundation. Staff will include speech therapists, psychologists, physiotherapists, doctors and nurses.”

Comments are closed.