In a letter addressed to Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Pope said that from now on the 12 persons chosen to participate in the ritual of the washing of the feet will be selected “from among all members of the people of God.”
“For some time I have been reflecting on the rite of the washing of the feet, which forms part of the Liturgy of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, with the intention of improving the ways in which it is put into practice, so that we fully express the meaning of the gesture made by Jesus in the Upper Room, his gift of self until the end for the salvation of the world, his boundless charity.”
Francis also stressed that “an adequate explanation of the meaning of the rite itself” ought to be provided for those chosen to participate.Now, as you may remember, I wrote a post on this topic a couple of years ago. Since I'm largely going to be repeating myself anyway, I'm going to just go ahead and pull some stuff out of that post:
So, what do we have?
We have an optional part of the Holy Thursday Mass which was added to the Mass in 1955; prior to that the Mandatum took place outside of Mass, and in even earlier ages it included lay rulers washing the feet of their subjects as well as bishops, priests, etc. washing the feet both of other clergy and of lay people. At least one form of the Mandatum seemed to center around washing the feet of beggars, paupers, or other lowly people, while the other form seemed to center around washing the feet of priests, deacons, or seminarians (some of whom might have received the minor orders); however, from about 1570 on the Mandatum specified 12 men, but said nothing about whether they were to be lay people or clergy, or whether, if lay people, they should be beggars or the poor.
The present instruction in the rubrics specifies men, but the number 12 is not included in the present instructions. So if the number was specified in previous law, it was dropped at some point--and it would be interesting to learn whether there actually used to be a requirement that 12 men should participate, and, if so, at what point that requirement was changed (especially: did a decline in the number precede the change in the law, or did the change in the law precede the relaxing as to the number required?).
I will grant that people who are interested or confused by what Pope Francis did on Holy Thursday are not necessarily legalists or Pharisees. Here in the United States, a group of loudmouthed agitators, some of whom, alas, were bishops, pushed to include women in the foot-washing thing under the mistaken impression that the Mandatum was always and everywhere about the priesthood. Some of them rather sneakily declared that of course the Mandatum wasn't really about the priesthood, but about serving the lowly, and after all women were treated as lowly people by some Catholics in some ages past, so...
...and the joke is on them, really. Because the Mandatum has always had these two parallel ideas associated with it. When bishops washed the feet of 12 or 13 beggars after dinner on Holy Thursday they certainly weren't calling the beggars to the priesthood (at least, not right then and there), but reminding the faithful that they, their Lordships and Excellencies the Bishops, who wore fine clothes and were rather high up socially, had the same duty to kneel in the dirt and wash the calloused feet of filthy, ragged paupers that Christ had exhorted and modeled as the duty of all priests to His own Apostles: this is what Christian leaders are to do, what sets them apart from the worldly ideas of power.Having said...er, repeated...all that, let me continue.
Today's news of the pope's letter from December to Cardinal Sarah making this change clear and official is actually good news, whether you think that only men should ever have their feet washed at Holy Thursday Mass, or whether you have long believed that the Mandatum wasn't primarily about priestly ordination but about Christ's exhortation to His followers (all of us, that is) to follow His example of humble service. The reason it is good news is this: there has been widespread confusion on this issue. Most of us are used to bishops and priests ignoring the Roman Missal on the "viri/men" question and washing the feet of women and/or children anyway. It's tempting, as a lay person (especially as a parent) to condemn the Holy Father's actions here as "rewarding" the rule-breakers, but we have to remember that the Church has full authority over these kinds of rules, and in fact throughout her ages it has not at all been uncommon for local priests and bishops to make small, minor changes that eventually found their way into Canon Law or the Missal or other places. We are not, let us be clear, talking about God's laws which are eternal and unchanging; we are talking about man's laws, such as whether or not men and women can sit on the same side of the church at Mass, or how many candles need to be placed on the altar during Eucharistic Adoration, or whether it would be theoretically possible for a priest/astronaut to celebrate Mass in space by pulling out ancient nautical rules governing Masses where only the Body of Christ (and not the Precious Blood) was consecrated, given the difficulties regarding liquids in space and the potential of being unable to handle the Precious Blood with due reverence in a weightless environment.
And I think that many of us have had some really honest confusion about the purpose of the Holy Thursday Mandatum. If, for instance, it was meant always and everywhere to point to the ordination of priests, why were lay married men whose wives were sitting a few pews over and hoping desperately that her husband hadn't carelessly picked out that one pair of socks with the hole in the toe for today included? They weren't eligible for ordination in the Roman Rite anyway. Wasn't it at least possible that the Mandatum's main meaning was supposed to be that reminder of humility in service, and that the only reason women weren't included earlier had to do with cultural standards of decorum and practical considerations due to women's clothing in those eras?
At this point, however interesting our speculations might be, the reality is that Pope Francis has made a change he is fully and solely authorized to make, and that in doing so he has made it clear that at this point the Church does indeed see the Holy Thursday Mandatum as being more about humble service than about ordination. And it is perfectly proper for priests to include women among those who represent the objects of a priest's service because, in fact, we are. There is not one Church for men and another for women (however much some men I can think of might wish for such a thing). There is one Body of Christ whom priests are called to serve, and Christ is present in the Church's humblest and least and most insignificant children, both male and female. And by the example of his humble and willing service, the priest leads his flock (as he is called to do) to go and do likewise, just as Christ led his apostles to the path of sacrificial service for the sake of the Gospel.