ASK FATHER: Can the pastor force me, a priest, to wash women’s feet on Holy Thursday?

B16 foot washingFrom a priest…

QUAERITUR (edited):

Emboldened by the Pope’s new legislation last year, my pastor is determined to force the small parish which I primarily serve  in the cluster to introduce women into the Holy Thursday footwashing rite.  [This old thing again… sigh.]

As the celebrant of the small parish’s Triduum, I have wrestled with what to do: Should I quietly omit the mandatum? Or maybe I might refuse vocally and on principle. The bishop himself cannot compel or forbid me from legitimate options, yet, I truly love my bishop and honestly do not want to grieve him.

Or should I grudgingly obey

Please advise.

This is the plight of the assistants.  Assistants, or “parochial vicars” as they are sometimes called, have the right to a Christian burial and that is about it.

I ran this by a some trusted priests, one a canonist, a pastor, a vicar general whom I know.  They are rock solid and celebrate the TLM.   We concur.

You are right: you can’t be “forced” to wash women’s feet. It’s sad that the pastor is trying to push this through onto a community that seems not to want it, and especially through the instrumentality of his assistant who is also opposed to it.

The cleanest option is to drop the optional mandatum rite.  That will no doubt get back to the pastor. The effect will be: you “disobeyed,” you are rigid, disobedient, backwards.  The pastor, during the last few weeks of your assignmment, might treat you with disdain and talk about you at future clergy gatherings.  You could be a faithful hero in some circles, trad scum in others.

Talk to the pastor first.

“Listen Dick, I know you want me to wash ladies’ feet at St. Amphilocius on Holy Thursday, but in conscience I just can’t do it, and here’s why: … I know we disagree on this, and you probably think I’m a horrible, rigid person for sticking to my beliefs, but I hope that you can at least respect my disagreement with you on this matter. Please, respect the integrity of my beliefs and allow me the decency of letting my actions be in conformity with my beliefs. More scotch?”

Respectfully voice your concern and objection privately to the pastor and perhaps also the bishop.  State your preference to omit the optional foot washing.  Don’t make a public issue of this, however.

If the pastor or bishops insists that you do it, then I think you have to go along with what the pastor decides.

Hang on and be prudent.  You will be a pastor of your own parish one day.  Learn from this how not to be a pastor, how to be a good pastor, and how to work well with assistants.

Finally, thanks for wanting to do the right thing and in the right way.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. With due consideration for the plight of this poor parochial vicar, for whom I will pray hard and in earnest, your sense of humor, Father Z, slays me. I think that you should have led with “buy Pastor Richard a nice bottle of Scotch. And upon delivering it . . . “

  2. It should be noted that other interpretations of the foot-washing, stretching back to the Church Fathers and inclusive of Eastern churches, are found (see

  3. un-ionized says:

    My parish didn’t do this washing of women’s feet but I was at a retreat last year for Holy Week where this was done. I said a priest has no business touching the feet of a woman who is not a blood relative. I was openly laughed at. How far we have fallen.

  4. un-ionized says:

    I should add that there can be an exception made for a priest who wants to remove my stuck foot from the railroad track as the train approaches, or something.

  5. Imrahil says:

    As our reverend host has said on some other occasions, one has to pick one’s battles.

    Seeing that the Mandatum has little to do with ordination, but with a service performed by the superior to the subordinates (tell that to the feminists), and with cleansing from venial sin of those about to partake Holy Communion, and that it is no longer a question of rubrical obedience either, given what the Pope has decreed,

    the best suggestion in this case is, in my view, to comply, reserving the “but in addition, and in any case, etc.” for a more perfect world.

    It is not like a command to wash the feet of the unbaptized (which would be intrinsically problematic). It is not even like a command to employ altar girls.

  6. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “The cleanest option is to drop the optional mandatum rite.” Amen, and amen. It should never have been introduced into parochial liturgies. It belongs, if anywhere, in a Chrism Mass celebrated between a bishops and his priests.

  7. APX says:

    Does no one think it’s just plain inappropriate for a man (let alone one who promised celibacy) to wash the feet of a woman who is not his wife/family member who needs assistance?

  8. wolfeken says:

    Sorry, but if an assistant pastor fully participates in this in public, precedent is set. Figure out a way to get out of it — a hospital call, an elderly lady who must be visited that day, whatever. But I think going along with the program in public while drinking about it in private is a terrible response. It reminds me of a politician who votes for a zillion dollar bill now with the intention of cutting the budget next year — which will never happen if you vote for the zillion dollar bill now.

    [Easily said… when you are a layman.]

  9. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Judging by photos on the internet, KISSING men’s and women’s feet has become de rigeur from the Pope on down.

    Yuck! On many levels.

  10. ChesterFrank says:

    To voice an opinion I will agree with Dr. E. Peters. The whole washing of the feet thing has become an obstacle to the Mass. It is no longer washing of women feet by the priests. It has morphed into parishioners washing each others hands or parishioners washing each others feet, complete with basins , and large pitchers of water, and plenty of fluffy white towels. The effort to accommodate every liberal request has turned the bathing ceremony into the main event.

  11. @Dr. Peters: I always learn something logical from you. Thank you for your input.

  12. Imrahil says:

    Dear wolfeken,

    well, the important thing is to distinguish the non-possumus we rightly object to any demand to participate in sin, from the anger however righteous we have at the way an in itself acceptable practice (even one we may not like) has been introduced, or a not strictly necessary restriction (even one we personally thought good to have) has been abolished.

    The non-possum does have its force; but it depends from neatly distinghishing this that can be participated in with a grudge, from others that really can’t. If people get the idea that person X thinks all change an outrage against all that is holy no matter what, lasting harm has been done for when a really offensive change does come.

    Only in the case of such a change that for one’s life and limbs might not be participated in would it make sense, by the way, to say “precedent is set” by some assistant pastor to participate in. In the case of some not in se reprehensible practice where precedent has been set by the Pope and the parish priest, that sort of precedent is rather rather immaterial.

    All this, of course, depends on the fact that washing the feet of women may be a loss of one rubric “making the staging of the historic event more realistic”, but not in conflict with its inner meaning.

    If it were (as it would be, for obvious reasons, see the quote of St. Peter towards our Lord in the Gospel, if the unbaptized get there feet washen), the case would be different. But it isn’t. The washing of the feet of women was, by the way, a far lesser change than having altar girls. It was a far lesser change than having women lectors. It was a far far far lesser change than having women EMHCs.

    Dear ChesterFrank,

    I haven’t seen that happening, personally. I have only seen a washing of the feet of twelve people, of whom indeed some were women.

    General note,

    one possible way out and also one strange thing is: Normally the foot-washing is only ever done by the main celebrant, and him alone. Which makes sense, because the supreme act of service to ones superiors would somehow be thwarted if you deputized your inferiors to do it.

  13. frsbr says:

    Given the tendency today to favor the “service of charity” aspect of the mandatum over that of “priestly service,” it is reasonable to carry out this custom apart from the Mass. In many monastic communities (both of men and women), the prior(ess) would traditionally perform the mandatum at one of the liturgical hours, or at some other opportune time. In our parish, we perform this rite on Holy Thursday morning. Lauds are sung in the church, there is a procession to the parish hall, accompanied by chanting the litany of the saints. The “subjects” of the mandatum are shut-ins, the frail, and those served by the parish St Vincent dePaul Society. After the mandatum, they and their caretakers are served breakfast by the parish. This preserves the ancient custom of symbolic charity, without intruding upon the integrity of the liturgy.

  14. VexillaRegis says:

    Time to confide in a trusted churchlady! She might have some good ideas of how to avoid the whole drama. You could for instance put her in charge of recruiting the twelve – and ask her to ask the ladies to get cold feet in the last minute ;-).

  15. asburyfox says:

    If the pastor does not relent and really pushes this, then another option is for the pastor to do the Triduum at that parish or find another priest that will help him do the Triduum at that parish.

  16. VexillaRegis says:

    Another thought: ask the pastor if he really wants you to go against your conscience. That might work if the pastor thinks ones conscience trumps everything.

  17. capebretoner says:

    Hopefully none of the women in the parish would even want to participate; I know I wouldn’t…….

  18. Kathleen10 says:

    Ugh, layperson here. I would be profoundly uncomfortable witnessing this, and I hope whatever church I’m in on that night does not inflict that on us. Pastors may consider that while some may find this cool and chic, plenty others do not and find it off-putting and even creepy. I mean it. It’s too weird to see the priest washing a woman’s foot. If any pastor is on the fence about this, please don’t!

  19. Nan says:

    The archbishop did this last year. I assume he’ll do it again this year. I’m going to be in Jerusalem for Easter.

  20. Madre5 says:

    I think of those traditional Catholics in the pew who perhaps do not read Father Z or anything else on the internet…. but live and believe the Faith. They will be devastated to see this traditional priest take part in this. It will give scandal to them and all those like minded who perhaps had come to believe in this priest. It will fill them with hopelessness and despair. They will not look at the politics behind the situation or the ‘obedience’ of the priest.

  21. comedyeye says:

    You state that a priest cannot be forced to wash women’s feet or any feet.
    Yet, if push comes to shove, you recommend he go along. Either way there will be friction felt by one of the parties. If there is going to be friction anyway, may as well live with the friction and hold to your convictions.

    [Which is why this is the Ask FATHER Question Box.]

  22. wolfeken says:

    Exactly, Madre5. Public image sets the tone. If only conservatives could be half as smart as Pope Francis on this.

  23. Chaswjd says:

    I had thought that the Pope had issued a change to the Roman Missal removing the “viri” from the instruction. There should be no legal impediment to the washing of the feet of a woman.

  24. John the Mad says:

    Father Z:
    I’m surprised no commenters have mentioned another possible option. If forced to desperate measures by a rigidly progressive pastor, an associate pastor (what parochial vicars are called here in the Great White North) could consider abandoning his current parish altogether, hitching a ride on a cattle boat to Argentina and starting life over as a gaucho vicar.

    The gaucho poncho might pass as a rustic chasuble (remember, this is a desperate situation). Admittedly, while parochial vicars on the lam might also consider wearing a gaucho bionas (beret), it really doesn’t hold a votive candle to a decent biretta.

    Given Pope Francis’s known aversion to the saturno, a newly minted gaucho vicar on the lam should perhaps exercise discretion and avoid the wide brimmed gaucho hat. One would not want a rigidly progressive gaucho pastor to take exception. After all, the next stop would mean ministering to penguins.

  25. Lurker 59 says:

    Some people are visual learners much more so than aural learners. They learn much much more from watching a priest and what he does than what he says during the homily.

    While it can be said that obedience is an important thing for a priest to teach his congregation, the congregation doesn’t know that the priest is acting against what the Church intends out of obedience to his superior, or if the priest is acting against what the Church intends because he desires to do other. Because most people don’t know what the Church intends, they will assume that the priest’s actions are what the Church intends, thus they will learn to think and act in a way that is not congruent with what the Church intends. Some people will know what the Church intends and not knowing the heart of the priest nor prior conversation with his superior, are left with the choice to think that the priest is acting against the Church or that his superior is a bully. Of these, which is more charitable and, more importantly, why on earth should the laity be put into this position?

    As a layperson, I haven’t been to Holy Thursday since I converted because nobody wins in this situation. The only solution that I have found is not to play the game. Unfortunately, priests do. So best of luck and God bless.

  26. Wirkes says:

    As we priests know, Obedience is the hardest Vow to keep. To submit to the will of another is easy when we agree….very hard when we disagree. I have been in your shoes ( a little appropriate “foot humor”) as both an Assistant and as a Pastor.
    Fr Z…aka..”Ever-Wise”…is right. Prudence is the Queen of Virtues.
    You have not been ordered to sin. You have not been ordered to disobey Liturgical Law (as it now stands…hideous as it is). Obey your Pastor, wash the feet of whomever he chooses, as you will be the main Celebrant. IF you choose to raise your objections with him (think and pray much before you do, as I don’t know the particulars of your relationship)…do it privately and speak not of it to anyone else in the Parish.
    If you disobey him, you may well be destroyed by the powers that be. PICK YOUR BATTLES!
    Good Luck dear Brother. Fr. Wirkes

  27. DoghouseRiley says:

    You don’t be givin’ Marcellus Wallace’s new bride a foot massage.

  28. Panterina says:

    Father Z’s closing statement got me thinking: One day this good assistant will become pastor, God willing. He might then have a young assistant of his own, who instead wants to wash the feet of women because pope Francis, of happy memory, did so. What should this freshly appointed, traditionally minded pastor do with this eager parochial vicar of his? [You know the answer already.]

  29. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    “pope Francis, of happy memory”

    If we look fondly back to the days of Good Pope Francis, ……

    On the topic at hand, however, might I suggest to the parochial vicar that he ask questions of his pastor, explaining that he is troubled by the proposed course of action. Or, perhaps, he could propose that women themselves might be uncomfortable with the practice, and that it is wrong to force them to do things like this…

  30. Ultrarunner says:

    Find a civilly married or engaged female couple and ask them to participate. Shortly before the ceremony, have them ask your bishop if you can marry them in the Church.

    This isn’t hard people.

  31. Deacon Ed Peitler says:

    If the parochial Vicar wants to someday be a pastor – or even a monsignor – he might try sitting in a chair himself and allow one of the women in the parish to wash his and the feet of eleven othe men. This will be an “accompaniment” of sort to those women aspiring to the priesthood.

  32. JohnNYC says:

    Is it an option for this poor priest to find a leaf or two of poison ivy (stinging nettle/7-minute itch) and a few hours before the Maundy Thursday Mass rub it on one of his wrists? ;-) ;-) ;-)

  33. Imrahil says:

    Dear Madre5 and wolfeken,

    so, are these good traditional Catholics also scandalized at at the fact that, when he concelebrates some times with his pastor, there are altar girls? there is a woman lector? And although he does all he can to distribute Holy Communion, the pastor employs EMHCs and that they are women? And that our assistant priest takes part in all this?

    If not, they have no business in being scandalized at the washing of the feet of women.

    Just because a change was more recent doesn’t mean it’s bigger, or it’s worse.

  34. Kerry says:

    As Jesus washed the feet of the twelve before the first one to leave mass early left early, should name tags be worn by the women, to remind those in the pews, that women are filling in for men…?
    (Irony off.)

  35. gretta says:

    I wonder if this is a generational problem, but I guess I just don’t see washing a woman’s foot as being anything lewd or improper. It’s just a foot, which seems pedestrian (!) rather than sexualized in some way. However, if I could make a suggestion – if forced, just pour water over the foot, have a bigger fluffy towel on hand, quickly envelope said foot to dry it, and move on. No one said that Father has to scrub…

  36. bobk says:

    An Orthodox opinion. As far as I know that feet thing is completely optional, can be any feet. And best of all can be skipped! I always have. Never ever heard of anyone whose day was ruined by missing it. How many complaints would come to the chancery if it was just….overlooked?

    [Indeed. But that doesn’t address this situation. This is about the assistant at the parish who may be forced to do something.]

  37. hwriggles4 says:

    There are some good pastors that will make the time to ask twelve men in advance who will show up on Holy Thursday to wash their feet. This is common at the parishes I have attended on Holy Thursday, and I always will thank the priest for taking the time to find twelve men.

  38. Absit invidia says:

    Thanks to these modernists I skip mass on Holy Thursday bc of this wild deviation from Our Lords Last Supper.

  39. majuscule says:

    One year our priest (then assistant) did as hwriggles4 mentions–he asked twelve men ahead of time.

    Then he had them each sit on the aisle at the end of the pew in a different row. It’s a small church so he didn’t have a difficult time going up the aisle with pitcher, bowl and towel. And there was no big commotion with men getting up to go to the front of the church where there would have barely been room for twelve men to be seated anyway.

  40. Sonshine135 says:

    I feel so sorry for our Priests who are trying to do the right thing while constantly having it thrown back in their faces. Sometimes, even the laity goes through these no-win situations, so the issue is somewhat understandable. I want to encourage Father that if he is forced to do this, then perhaps he can offer up additional prayers for his Pastor in the form of reparations. I would not fault him in the least if he finds the results of confronting the Pastor a detriment. Sometimes, we have to look toward the future, and the possibility of better outcomes resulting from obedience.

  41. CPT TOM says:

    In my parish the foot washing has gotten completely out of hand pretty much as ChesterFrank relates…with congregates washing each others feet, and the whole circus. It is longer than the Mass for goodness sakes. Last year I went to another nearby parish, and they dropped it completely. Good. This is what I suggest the parochial vicar do. It’s optional, so don’t do it. Your parish will thank you for avoiding circus that the rite itself has become and the mixed and confused message it gives.

  42. frival says:

    Frighteningly I’ve heard many people express the belief that the most important part of the Holy Thursday Mass is the Mandatum. Apparently the whole Eucharist thing just tags along. As my kids like to say these days, “I can’t even…”

  43. Mary Jane says:

    I actually like the foot washing ceremony…that said, the only time I have ever seen it has been at an EF liturgy by priests of the FSSP. The EF Holy Thursday liturgy is so beautiful, and the chants so haunting…the hours leading up to Christ’s passion…the first Mass…the institution of the Eucharist and Priesthood…

    So the only time I have seen this, as I said, has been at a liturgy celebrated by priests of the FSSP. There have always been 12 men, the whole thing takes maybe 5 minutes, and Ubi Caritas is sung while this is going on…at least when I’ve seen it, it’s been beautiful and moving.

    The thought of women having their foot washed…ugh. Gives me the willies.

    I am sure if I had seen things other commenters here have, I would not like this part of the Holy Thursday liturgy.

  44. Rich Leonardi says:

    If the pastor or bishops insists that you do it, then I think you have to go along with what the pastor decides.

    Just make sure the water is extra cold.

  45. Gerhard says:

    This raises the question of how we should react to the overwhelming oppressive tide of ideologues, who, make no mistake, are vile. They are walking all over us, and we have to stay silent?! Enough is enough! Pick battles, sure, but a line must also be drawn at practices, which, whilst in themselves not sinful, kill proper liturgical practice with a thousand cuts. We little folk in the pews feel so betrayed by bad-faith Bishops and Pastors that we need manly Priests with firm back-bone to look up to.

  46. Gerhard says:

    The foot-washing is all about charity and humility, right? So Bishop Fatty McButterpants and Pastor Bendiwrists Oilytongue should have the charity and humility not to impose their will by taking away our options. And someone ought to tell them to put that in their pipe and smoke it.

  47. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Since he is bound to obey his pastor, the goal, surely, should be to have the pastor no longer want to have women’s feet washed. What about this:

    “Father, Cardinal Wuerl says that we should not make the Communion rail political, so would that same principle apply here?”

    “Father, Pope Francis says that we must accompany those who are in strange situations, so should we not have compassion on those who don’t understand why women’s feet should be washed, and give it a miss this year”?

  48. I agree with Dr. Peters: The foot washing should be reserved for the Chrism Mass where the bishop washes the feet of 12 of his priests. We should otherwise scrap it because nobody grasps that this is one of the few times where the historical-critical method is useful. For those who miss the context in which Jesus washed the feet of those whom he just made priests, please look for the first booklet that I plan to write, on the shelf at Leaflet Missal next spring for only one dollar. After lo these many years I now know what I need to write first.

    iubeo nunc te bene valere

  49. Justalurkingfool says:

    The Zombies answered this situation with their big hit from 1965, in a slightly different context.


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