Pope Francis washes feet of 12 women, continuing 2016 ‘innovation’ in Holy Thursday liturgy – LifeSite

ROME (LifeSiteNews) — Pope Francis today washed the feet of 12 women during the Maundy Thursday Mandatum ceremony, continuing the break with Tradition and only men’s feet being washed, which he cemented with a decree in 2016.

In a ceremony held in Rome’s Rebibbia women’s prison, Pope Francis performed the Mandatum, or washing of feet, for Maundy Thursday, but it is believed that it is the first time the 12 people were all women.

Seated in his wheelchair, the pope was wheeled along the line of 12 of the inmates in the Rebibbia prison, washing, drying, and kissing feet the length of the line. 

Francis said in his homily that the washing of feet was done in imitation of Christ and demonstrated the “vocation of service.” 

The washing of women’s feet during the Maundy Thursday liturgy – while a favorite of the Vatican’s media division due to the emotional reactions of recipients of the pope’s gesture – is a contentious one liturgically. 

The symbolic washing of the feet by the celebrant of the Mass is to commemorate Christ’s washing the feet of His 12 Apostles at the establishment of the priesthood. As Dom Prosper Gueranger notes in his liturgical commentary: “He would teach us, by what He is now doing, how great is the purity wherewith we should approach the holy table. He that is washed, says He, needeth not but to wash his feet.”

But in the first weeks of his pontificate, Pope Francis made waves through the Church by washing women’s feet at the Holy Thursday Mass, becoming the first pope to do so. Among the women whose feet he washed was a Muslim. 

In January 2016, after establishing the practice, he officially altered the Church’s liturgy to allow for washing women’s feet at the Holy Thursday. Via a letter to Cardinal Robert Sarah (then-prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship) and a subsequent decree, Francis opened up to women a liturgical action that had previously always been officially reserved to men. 

While local practice beforehand had illegally included the washing of women’s feet during the Maundy Thursday Mandatum, the pope’s 2016 decree formally instituted the custom. Francis wrote to Cardinal Sarah, saying the formal change was made with “the intention of improving the manner in which it is carried out, so that it fully expresses the meaning of the gesture performed by Jesus in the Upper Room, his giving of himself ‘to the end’ for the salvation of the world, his charity without boundaries.”

Commenting on the pope’s “innovation” – as it was described in the CDW decree implementing the pope’s wishes – Bishop Athanasius Schneider roundly criticized the development. Noting the intimate link of the Mandatum and the male-only priesthood, Bishop Schneider stated:

This Holy Mass celebrates the commemoration of the institution of the sacraments of the Eucharist and the Priesthood. Therefore, the foot washing of women along with the men not only distracts from the main focus on Eucharist and on Priesthood, but generates confusion regarding the historical symbolism of the “twelve” and of the apostles being of male sex. The universal tradition of the Church never allowed the foot washing during the Holy Mass, but instead outside of Mass, in a special ceremony.

By the way: the public washing and usually also kissing of the feet of women on the part of a man, in our case, of a priest or a bishop, is considered by every person of common sense in all cultures as being improper and even indecent. Thanks be to God no priest or bishop is obliged to wash publicly the feet of women on Holy Thursday, for there is no binding norm for it, and the foot washing itself is only facultative.

Cardinal Arthur Roche – while still Archbishop Roche and serving as CDW secretary – suggested in 2016 that priests were obliged to choose women for the foot washing following the pope’s decree. However, he was overruled by his superior and CDW prefect, Cardinal Sarah, who stated that “pastors may select a small group of the faithful to represent the variety and the unity of each part of the people of God.” This selection, noted Sarah, was such that the “small groups can be made up of men and women.”

In recent years, Francis has formally opened up male-only aspects of the Church’s liturgy to women, such as instituting female lectors and acolytes. 

Pope Francis institutes a woman as lector, January 21, 2024.

While the practice of women lectors and acolytes had been widespread, the formal institution of women as lectors and acolytes is a modern novelty resulting from Pope Francis’ 2021 changes to the Church’s canon law, as outlined in his motu proprio Spiritus Domini. A subsequent motu proprio later that same year, Antiquum ministerium, provided for the formal institution of women as catechists, resulting in the first institution of women in the roles in 2022.

Writing in 2021 to then-prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Francis said that Spiritus Domini was following the lines of thought of Vatican II along with the controversial 2019 Synod on the Amazon: “in the horizon of renewal outlined by the Second Vatican Council, one feels ever greater today the urgency to rediscover the co-responsibility of all the baptized in the Church, and particularly the mission of the laity.” 

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