Washing Feet – observations

I refer the readership to some lucid and sober comments about the pedilavium, the foot washing, that can occur as an option in both uses of the Roman Rite.

Fr John Hunwicke makes some keen and, for liberals sobering, observations. I expunged his emphases and added my own emphases and comments:

PEDILAVIUM or FOOT WASHING: such a wealth of different meanings

The meaning of this rite, in the intention of the current Sovereign Pontiff, has been changed. I persist, against all the traddy shock-horror, in considering this No Big Deal. [This is a good approach, provided the Church’s laws are still being obey… which they are not in many places.] Firstly, a bit of History.

(1) The sense the Pedilavium appears (not invariably but) most commonly to have had in the pre-modern period was of humble service done by a superior (Bishop, Abbot) before his own subjects, and in the intimacy of their own close fellowship. Among the feet which Father Abbot washed were those of the young monk whom, perhaps, he had needed yesterday to discipline. His Lordship the Bishop did the same for a presbyter with whom … forfend the thought! … he may have had a less than cordial relationship. Perhaps an equivalent would be Papa Bergoglio washing the feet of curial cardinals including those who had disagreed with him in Synod or during their weekly audiences!  [Now that would be a gesture that would mean something, especially after the way he lambasted the Curia for Christmas a year and more back.  In any event, take note of the gesture’s element of condescension.]

[NB] The Lord did not, as people sometimes carelessly assert, “wash the feet of his disciples”, who were many; He washed the feet of a much more limited group, the Twelve. He did not wash the feet of the people who flocked to hear Him teach in the fields or on the Mountain or beside the Lake or in the village square, or even the feet of the Seventy He sent forth or of the women who ministered to Him; when He washed the feet of the Twelve, it was behind the closed doors of an exclusive Meeting arranged in almost 007-style secrecy. And the implication of S Peter’s words was that this had not been the Lord’s regular custom.  [Take note of the gesture’s element of exclusivity.  The Lord washed the feet of the elite Twelve, the “chosen”, and out of public view.]

It has been plausibly suggested that we might discern sacerdotal undertones when a bishop washes the feet of his presbyters; Anglicans will recall that Bubbles Stancliff, a liturgical dilettante who was bishop of Salisbury and who appears to have believed this, introduced the ceremony into Anglican ordination rites. [On the other hand, it is a fact that the High Priest washed the feet of his first sacerdotes.]

[This is good…] Washing the feet of a person with whom one has no relationship, no daily fellowship whether for better or for worse, empties the rite of this, historically (I think) its first, meaning. Unless a different meaning is devised, it becomes an empty, formalistic, ritual. [Interesting, no?]

(2) A second meaning of some historic pedilavium ceremonies was both the humility and the generosity of the great and the grand towards their social inferiors. Holy Condescension. This is the meaning which the rite had when it was used by sovereigns and by some bishops. Food, clothing, money would often be distributed. In the twentieth century, British monarchs restored the rite in this sense, but did not revive the actual footwashing. Specially minted pieces of archaic coinage are distributed. True, the Lord High Almoner still girds himself with a towel, but that is only because this is the sort of thing which the English, a strange race, deem to be ‘tradition’.

Meanings (1) and (2) both rest upon presuppositions of status and hierarchy. These are concepts now rather out of vogue. [Unless you are a liberal.  Remember: they are the morally superior elitists par excellence.] Perhaps this is why the Holy Father has dreamed up a new and completely different understanding of the rite … inculturating it, so to speak, into post-modernity.

(3) This different and new meaning Papa Bergoglio now wishes to attach to the rite is the boundless love and Mercy of God to all, and not least to those on the peripheries of Society. This removes any overlaps with meanings (1) and (2) (and it is very far from what the closed and exclusive intimacy of the Last Supper suggests that the Lord had in mind). But, [PAY ATTENTION!] as long as we all understand that this new meaning has nothing whatsoever to do with S John’s Last Supper narrative or the Church’s ancient liturgical tradition, it seems to me a perfectly reasonable Acted Parable for an innovative Roman Pontiff to introduce and to encourage. No harm in a bit of imagination!!  [So, perhaps the pedilavium should be developed into an entirely separate Holy Thursday rite, outside of Mass, especially the Holy Thursday Mass.]

Since the Pedilavium is, in historical terms, a very recent and completely optional importation into the Liturgy of a ceremony which (where it was done at all) used to be extra-liturgical and took varying forms, I cannot see why any Roman Pontiff, or, for that matter, any junior curate, should not be entitled to juggle around with it, and to give it whatever new meaning or meanings he chooses to suit his own specific social context. [Yep.  As long as it isn’t during Holy Thursday Mass.] (Whether Maundy Thursday, a congested Day on which liturgically quite a lot already happens, is the most apt time for such performances, I very much doubt. Here, I have a constructive suggestion to make: see, below, my penultimate paragraph.)


Read the rest over there.  It gets good.


So… remove it entirely from Mass and then … let a hundred flowers blossom!  Let a hundred schools of thought… make up stuff.

Meanwhile, this ludicrous scene was spotted on Facebook and sent to me.


I don’t know what this is, but it isn’t the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, The Drill and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. frsbr says:

    Given the new emphasis introduced by Pope Francis, it makes sense to perform the pedilavium apart from Mass. This year, our parish prayed Morning Prayer, then processed from the church to the hall, chanting the Litany of the Saints. Members of the community who had been served by the parish St Vincent dePaul Society and the nursing and home-bound apostolates were the subjects of the rite, performed by the pastor, during which we sang “Where Charity and Love Prevail.” The various prayers and blessings were assembled from the Roman Missal. Then breakfast was served to everyone present. It was all quite moving, and a relief from the silliness that has often accompanied this rite in the past.

  2. chantgirl says:

    Why move from the perfect to the imperfect. Jesus’s gesture was done in a certain context, and it is the one most people associate with the act. If the Pope wants to turn the gesture into a welcoming-of-the-poor thing, maybe a different gesture altogether is in order. Why not feed 5000 in St. Peter’s square? Yes, all bishops throughout the world should pick a day and feed 5000 people in their diocese. (While they are at it, they could also consecrate Russia to Our Lady, as she originally asked).

    Fr. Hunwicke’s suggestion of surprise foot-washing drive-bys sounds like a reign of terror to those of us who are extremely ticklish.

  3. I expected Fr Hunwicke to reply the second I saw “Muslim” in a headline about the Pope’s version. Then again I should have expected it when they announced “refugee” camp. But, following the good Father, I’d been optimistic that the Legislator would follow his own rule (re: the People of God).

    Meanwhile, the diocesan newspaper seems to expect that I’d long forgotten my own request to republish material re: that which I started for the purposes of said discussion. One person even came up to me and wondered if I was criticising the Holy Father. For goodness’ sake, did I not say I wrote to him asking for the change!? Better to keep a rule that is smaller than to break one of any size.

  4. excalibur says:

    Traditionally, before changes c.1956, the foot washing was not done during Mass. And after Mass was quite appropriate:

    St. John writes that Our Lord washed the feet of the Apostles after the supper: “et cena facta” [“the supper having been finished”] (John 13: 2).


    And now we have a Pope kissing feet as well. Where did that come from? (I pray daily for Francis).

    Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.


  5. iPadre says:

    This is the third year that I did not wash feet in the optional rite.

    However, I do thing it would be more fit to the Chrism Mass, with the bishop washing the feet of his priests. And not a group of Monsignors, but a different and varied group of the presbyterate each year. I would better reflect the original narrative. Just think of the diversity among the Twelve. One betrayed Our Lord, another denied Him and everything in between. We are the same rag tag bunch as they were.

  6. Sieber says:

    OK, it is reported that Cardinal Bergolio ignored the norms for the washing of the feet while in Argentina. Then as pope he continued to do so. But, he has just instituted a new regulation that seemd to limit the Mandatum to the members of the People of God, which is the definition of the church given by the Second Vatican Council. He has just been shown washing the feet of Muslims and a Hindu. So he is not following his own new regulation. What are we to make of this?

    [What are we to make of it? We don’t have to make anything of it. No matter what he does, we have to follow the norm. If doesn’t do what he says that we ought to do, that’s his business. He is the Lawgiver in the Church.]

  7. Grumpy Beggar says:

    Great finale over at Fr. H’s blog. His combox is cooking on this one too.

  8. Kathleen10 says:

    Yes, hold this foot-fest outside of Mass and you’ll get a smaller crowd to confuse. Good.
    There are too many distortions of too many things and I wish someone would just hold the line already and end this. Perhaps the big reveal of the Exhortation will galvanize some Bishops. We can only hope. Desperately hope!
    What on earth are the women in this picture doing. Ladies…ladies…this is embarrassing…get out of there and find something productive…and look at the presumed pastor and deacon…looking very extraneous to the whole production. What a farce.

  9. Nan says:

    In defense of the ladies who said yes, the group included one of the usual sisters (usually at morning Mass, the ones who take care of the Abp.) and women who volunteer a lot. They may have felt they couldn’t say no or perhaps are the kind who can’t say no. It was the usual sisters who carried up the gifts; I don’t know their names or order but know which one went to the fair and does the grocery shopping.

  10. Chrisc says:

    I think this is one of the problems from the Vatican II era to streamline all rituals and fold them into the Mass. I couldn’t really care whose feet Francis (or any bishop) washes, it is probably a better use of his time than most other things. But to place his personal preferences and tastes as a substitute for that which has been signified by this in the past is egotistical. The readings are clearly oriented to the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist. As such, the only way the feet washing ritual makes liturgical contextual sense is to wash the feet of men. Outside of mass, third thursday of the vernal equinox, whatever….wash anyone’s feet you want for whatever personally odious pet-project you happen to love.

  11. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: do it in St. Peter’s Square and feed the five thousand –

    That is exactly what Roman nobility and priests used to do, in the 18th and 19th century. Noble ladies washing the feet of female beggars and weary pilgrims, noble lords and priests taking care of guys in another temporary building, everybody being given shoes and stockings or whole outfits, and a nice co-ed lunch banquet afterward for all the participants and washers.

  12. Sword40 says:

    Our FSSP parish does not do the foot washing. several local OF parishes still persist. But I’m spared since the FSSP came in.

  13. Fr AJ says:

    That pictures looks like the end of the foot washing rite, people are putting their shoes back on and it looks terrible. I’d say this is typical of most parishes. Very sad but that is the state of our liturgy many places.

  14. cda_sister says:

    And your previous parish did the same…. However, our participants were volunteers who work at our St Vincent De Paul Society, a few RCIA volunteers, and some of the school children. Hopefully next year we will be able to get some community volunteers from those served by SVDP and our local nursing home residents. Unfortunately I was unable to attend but most comments I heard were favorable and FrEM did a wonderful job. If it has to be changed, and removed from the Mass, because there it should never be anything other than men,then I suppose this offers an acceptable means to exhibit Christ’s example of service, in charity and humility.

  15. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    The ritual is no longer appropriate for the Feast of the Institution of the Priesthood. It is now suited to the Celebration of Surrender to the Muslim Invasion of the West.

  16. AnnTherese says:

    Might be too late for anyone too see this post…. But I’d appreciate clarification. In the spirit of the Last Supper and the intent of Jesus– only priests should be included in the foot washing ritual, correct? Because that was the idea of those 12 apostles and not just any disciples having their feet washed? If this is true– then why has it been acceptable to have lay males be part of this in our parishes? For they no more represent priests than women or non-Christians, correct? They would be representing disciples.

    Then, if it is only priests who should be participating, moving this to the Chrism Mass makes sense, since getting 12 priests to be present at every parish’s Holy Thursday would be impossible.

  17. Healingrose1202 says:

    My understanding is that it is a symbol of the priesthood. Since only men can be priests, I see it as something that would be appropriate for either a priest or any male: who is recognized as being of an age of reason by the Church, is Catholic, and that may be considering the priesthood. Most people take the act of washing feet out of context. Jesus did not do this as a free-for-all in grand fashion for everyone or with everyone. Jesus did this in private with only his chosen few. Jesus did not include His mother, Mary Magdalene, or anyone just passing by. If women or non disciples were excluded in the reading, then there is a reason. The Bible warns not to change what is written. When we take one piece out of context and change it, we lose the meaning. There is a reason for every detail. I am not an expert, but I this is how I understand it.

Comments are closed.