Skip to content
  1. April 19, 2014 11:14 am

    Ahh, it wouldn’t be the Triduum without Fr. Z and the National Catholic Reporter upset about the foot washing.

    In all seriousness, I think it was a mistake for Pius XII to combine foot washing with the Maundy Thursday Mass. The foot washing, as you and others have pointed out, was never about the institution of the priesthood. It was about the call to service and the command to love one another. This distinction was clear when it was a rite outside of the Mass, where even laywomen could wash the feet of other laywomen. I believe it was customary for queens to wash feet, but I could be wrong. There was no priesthood symbolism.

    Should foot washing be done away with? This is a much broader question than foot washing. Much, if not most of the symbolism essential to Christianity is of a particular time, place, and region of the world. We see this in the use of oil in Christian sacraments. For modern westerners, the use of oil is bizarre. In the ancient world, oil had various different uses. They used it to bathe. It was used for medicinal purposes. Samuel anointed David’s head with oil. For most modern westerners, we use oil strictly for cooking. Olive oil is also relatively expensive, where it would have been a staple in the Mediterranean world.

    Even the most basic symbols and motifs can have radically different meanings in different cultures. I was thinking about this last year one day at Mass, during the Our Father. I suddenly realized that a young woman living in ancient Rome, (where her father could have married her against her will, sold her as a slave, and even killed her with relative impunity) would pray the Our Father very differently than I do. This is a very important question. What happens when religious symbols no longer mean what they previously meant? What happens when a culture, or people in a culture, understand a religious ritual in a completely different way than previous generations did? Do we attempt to be anthropologists, trying to understand the meaning these rituals had in their time and place? Do we keep the old rituals and accept that their meaning for the community have changed? Do we preserve the old meaning by finding new rituals for the community?

    So, as for foot washing, I would undo what Pius XII did and separate it from the Mass. Perhaps, before the Mass begins, the priest, deacon, and other parish leaders can wash the feet of parishioners. Putting it in the context of the Mass conflates it with the Institution of the Priesthood, which is a modern innovation.

    Should it be done away with? That’s a much bigger kettle of fish.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 19, 2014 1:46 pm

      I wrote the first (deliberately) provocative line of the post before writing the body; indeed, my thoughts only came into focus as I was writing. So I don’t really see abolishing foot washing as an serious option.

      However, the questions you raise in more generality about the evolution of meaning within a community are very germane. This question has been raised by third world theologians coming, for instance, out of cultures where bread and wine do not have the same meanings they have for us. I don’t know a good answer, or even good framework for discussing these broader questions, which I think would be very helpful in rethinking the questions surrounding foot washing.

  2. Rick Painter permalink
    April 19, 2014 11:40 am

    I agree David.

  3. April 19, 2014 11:48 am

    It’s also worth pointing out we don’t need anyone’s permission to go out and paint a homeless shelter or work at a food bank. We’re free to gather together a like minded group of parishioners and go volunteer in the community. Who knows? It could catch on.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 19, 2014 1:39 pm

      I agree completely; indeed, many of my fellow parishonors are active in the community in a variety of ways. I am just exploring the idea of ritualizng what they do and the impact this would have on them and others. My hope would be that it would make this sort of thing catch on even more broadly.

      • Melody permalink
        April 19, 2014 2:08 pm

        Good suggestion; maybe we could do it like the Rice Bowls; and donate a certain number of hours of service. But not necessarily try to do them during Holy Week; things can get too crazy sometimes.
        When I first read that people were still wrangling over the foot washing issue, I thought, “Really?? Flipping grow up and deal with it; it’s not a matter of life and death.”
        Unrelated, or maybe it is related; in our parish this year we will have three funerals the three days following Easter Sunday. Considering that it isn’t a large parish and we may go a couple of months without any funerals, that’s a lot. Two of the deaths were unexpected. Life is fragile. If we considered that the day we are in might be our last, or someone else’s last, would we reconsider the things we disagree about?

    • dismasdolben permalink
      April 19, 2014 2:27 pm

      emmasrandomthoughts, I think it’s very important to get the “permission” of the poor before serving them.

  4. Kurt permalink
    April 19, 2014 4:21 pm

    BTW, I understand the Bishop of Madison is not exactly getting perfect compliance with his edict.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 19, 2014 5:25 pm

      I am not surprised. As the old saying goes: bishops propose but pastors dispose.

  5. Stuart permalink
    April 19, 2014 7:05 pm

    And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”

    Jesus answered, “The most important is this: ‘Only vote for candidates who claim to be anti-abortion.’ The second is like unto it: ‘Only vote for candidates who are claim to be against gay marriage.’ If you do these two things, you have fulfilled all the requirements of the Law.”

    And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said–um, wait a minute, what did you say?”

    Jesus said, “Oh, and women can’t be priests. Don’t forget that one. I only picked guys for a reason–you know how women are (wink, wink).”

    The scribe continued: — “Don’t you want to say something about God being one?”

    “And for heaven’s sake,” Jesus went on, “only wash the feet of priests on Maundy Thursday. BTW, what does Maundy mean anyway?

    The scribe suggested, “I think you might have meant to say, “To love God with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

    “I don’t think I said that,” Jesus said. “I thought I was pretty clear on the anti-abortion and anti-gay stuff.”

    The scribe said, “So, you’re saying that all I have do to enter the Kingdom is vote for anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage candidates, stop women from being priests, and make sure only men get their feet washed? It has nothing to with loving God or loving my neighbor?”

    And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

    And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. But many of them decided to become Bahai because it seemed a lot nicer.

    • calebt45 permalink
      April 20, 2014 10:36 am

      You knocked down a very feeble straw man, Stuart.

      • Stuart permalink
        April 20, 2014 9:53 pm

        I would class foot-washing with the burnt offerings, etc. It is a tradition which can convey a sense of the Kingdom, but it’s not something Christ’s church needs to cling to if it has ceased to communicate God’s grace. I think when Pope Francis washes the feet of the disabled regardless of religion or gender, he conveys the meaning of the Kingdom better than restricting foot-washing to male priests. Development of doctrine and liturgy doesn’t mean clinging desperately to outdated and unfruitful traditions. Or old wineskins.

        What straw man?

        • calebt45 permalink
          April 21, 2014 10:27 am

          This is the straw man: “So, you’re saying that all I have do to enter the Kingdom is vote for anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage candidates, stop women from being priests, and make sure only men get their feet washed? It has nothing to with loving God or loving my neighbor?”

          Who is promoting this viewpoint? Which commentators actually hold to such a view?

          And, if you think that opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion and the ordination of woman really do constitute “outdated and unfruitful traditions” why on earth would you remain a Catholic?

    • April 20, 2014 1:11 pm

      Fantastic, Stuart! I love it!

      • Stuart permalink
        April 21, 2014 3:38 pm

        I guess I remain a Catholic because Jesus is really present in the sacrament. He’s the One who invited me, so blame it on Him.

        “Gay marriage” is, for me, a phrase like “Lutheran ordination” or “Baptist church” or “Muslim scripture.” I don’t think Lutherans are priests, Baptists are a church, or the Koran is inspired Scripture–but what these other people believe doesn’t in any way affect my faith. I can refer to a Lutheran as “Pastor Kathy” or say “It’s down by the First Baptist Church” or “I think the Koran has many wonderful passages” without feeling I have diminished my own faith. If two non-Catholics in a free society, or if a state in a free society, wants to call a same-sex partnership a “marriage,” then go ahead. But if you want to know what God means by “marriage” or “ordination” or “church” or “Scripture,” then you need to ask a Roman Catholic.

        I think that the only thing which has been statistically shown to reduce abortions is having social programs which encourage women to keep their unborn children. I don’t see any statistical evidence that outlawing abortion or shaming scared young women with unnecessary ultrasounds has any effect whatsoever on the abortion rate, so I go with what actually works.

        I don’t think God calls women to the priesthood. I do think God calls women to be parish administrators where the priests are their employees. I think we need more churches where women run the show and the priests are in the background consecrating the Eucharist and hearing confession while women are in the forefront, preaching, governing, and distributing the Host.

        I admit, it’s hard to be a faithful Catholic when I believe that Vatican II was a valid council and Pope Francis is a legitimate Pope! :)

  6. Julia Smucker permalink*
    April 20, 2014 5:11 pm

    A lot of mixed thoughts are swirling around in my head here. First of all, I could not agree more with the following statement:

    If we look at the example set by Pope Francis this year and last, we should ignore the fact that he washed the feet of both women and men, and concentrate on the other dimensions of his choices. Each time he has left the Vatican and gone out to the poor and marginalized: first to a prison, and then to a home for the disabled.

    In fact, I was thinking of making the same point in a post of my own. But since David has relieved me of having to be the one to broach the subject, and I’m already growing weary just trying to sort out my thoughts, I will try and articulate some of them here. To elaborate on the above, I do think all the fixation on the fact that the pope washes the feet of women (and non-Christians, sometimes brought in as a secondary point), whether favorably or unfavorably, misses the bigger point. What’s more important, and the real scandal in a Christ-like way, is that he has sought out socially marginalized communities to whom to give the privilege of being served on one of the Church’s holiest nights, as a sign of contradiction to the “throwaway culture” he so often preaches against. By so visibly consecrating such a sacred liturgy to people who are among those “thrown away”, he is, I believe, trying to remind both them and the rest of the world that they matter, and matter immensely.

    As for footwashing in general, I’m relieved to see David has retracted the suggestion of abolishing it altogether. As a visible point of convergence between liturgy and service, it has particular significance for me as a “Mennonite Catholic”: in the context of Bridgefolk it has become a central ritual in our unrealized yearning for full communion; and for me personally, having too often observed ritual and service played against each other as a zero-sum game, it provides a much-needed focal point, symbolizing (hopefully in a Real sense, a la Karl Rahner) the reciprocity of “solemn liturgy” and “service and self-abnegation”. Indeed, what is the raison d’etre of the community of Christian faith, if not that these flow into each other? In that sense, David, I very much like your suggestion of combining Maundy Thursday liturgy with some concrete communal act of service, although I definitely would not use the phrase “instead of” (to be fair, you end up with a both/and, and even reiterate Pope Francis’ point about the danger of the either/or, so I’m not sure why you said “instead of” to begin with, unless you were just being provocative).

    Speaking for myself, I’ve certainly never seen footwashing by the priest in the context of the Mass as a distancing mechanism. Granted, this is partly due to my own Christian formation: in many Mennonite liturgies (this is not the oxymoron it may once have been) that I’ve been a part of, and most pointedly in Bridgefolk, it has been profoundly meaningful to wash each other’s feet. But I still think there is something to be said for the role reversal enacted by the priest and laity, not as a heroic act to be merely admired at a distance, but as a sign that truly Christian leadership requires humility and service, as our Lord said; and as an imitatio Christi which we in turn are to imitate, as St. Paul said. If that message is not always as evident as it should be, that’s all the more reason not to do away with the ritual act, but rather to revitalize its meaning – which, again, appears to be what Pope Francis is trying to do.

  7. Julia Smucker permalink*
    April 20, 2014 6:06 pm

    Apropos of this discussion, I’ve just come across Pope Francis’ (short and sweet) Maundy Thursday homily, courtesy of Zenit:

    We heard what Jesus did in the Last Supper: it was a farewell gesture. It is the legacy he left us. He is God and he made himself servant, our servant. And this is the legacy: you also must be servants of one another. And He did this out of love: you also must love one another and be servants in love. This is the legacy that Jesus left us.

    And he does this gesture of washing the feet, which is a symbolic gesture: slaves did it, servants did it for those at table, to people who came to lunch, to dinner because at that time the streets were all of earth and when they entered the house it was necessary to wash their feet.

    And Jesus did a gesture, a work, a service of a slave, of a servant. And he leaves this as legacy to us. We must be servants of one another. And because of this, the Church, on this day, in which the Last Supper is commemorated, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, also does, during the ceremony, this gesture of washing the feet, which reminds us that we must be servants of one another.

    Now I will do this gesture, but all of us, in our heart, must think of others and think of the love that Jesus tells us we must have for others, and we think also how we can serve them better, other persons. Because this is what Jesus wished us to do.

  8. dismasdolben permalink
    April 21, 2014 1:29 am

    All I can say to much of this is what is being said all over the world by people who are not Catholic–by Muslims here in Egypt, and in Istanbul, where I recently vacationed, by Buddhists I know in Sri Lanka, by Hindus and Muslims I know in India, by Calvinists I know in Germany, and by a few Protestants I am acquainted with in America: this pope is better than his Church.

    • Roger permalink
      April 22, 2014 10:27 am

      Quite frankly, who cares what people think? He is NOT better than the Church – no one is.

      The Pope, your pastor and the laity should never be concerned what people think (both Catholic and non-Catholics). We are called to live as Christians/Catholics and not to some image as what others think.

      • dismasdolben permalink
        April 22, 2014 11:31 pm

        who cares what people think?

        I do. I have to. I live among non-Catholics. I’m an expatriate, and I’ve been repeatedly, throughout my life, deeply embarrassed by the behaviour of Christians/Catholics–especially Americans.

  9. April 21, 2014 7:33 am

    Last year I suggested that the foot washing is a mess because it actually tries to combine illogically what should be three separate acts whose symbolisms are variously thrown in the mix.

    I proposed that instead there should be THREE footwashings on Maundy Thursday:

    1) the bishop washes the feet of the twelve numerary canons of his cathedral (priests), at the Chrism Mass

    2) the pastor washes the feet of all the catechumens and or candidates at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (if there are any; men and women, no set number)

    3) the Pope, Christian princes/monarchs, and any bishops or even simple pastors who so desire…wash the feet of 13 poor people (at least one of whom should be a catholic male, but otherwise of any sex or religion) in a service outside of liturgy according to the tradition of Pope Gregory.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 21, 2014 2:57 pm

      Could you explain the choice of 13 in #3 instead of 12?

      • April 22, 2014 1:24 pm

        Prior to 1955, the tradition at Rome for the footwashing of paupers the Pope did after supper was actually 13, not twelve, on account of the story of St Gregory:

        “On another occasion St. Gregory commanded his almoner to bring twelve poor men to his table, but when he sat down he noticed there were thirteen guests. He called his almoner and told him he had exceeded the number; but the almoner replied, his holiness had commanded him to furnish twelve guests, and twelve only were assembled. St. Gregory saw at once there was some mystery, and kept his eye upon the thirteenth. He observed that the figure and countenance of this guest waa constantly changing: at one time he looked like a child, then a young man, and last of all as a very old man. After the meal was over he called the mysterious stranger to him, and asked his name. ‘Why would you know my name?’ said the stranger; ‘it is unutterable. I am an angel, sent by God, to tell you how highly He approves of these acts of charity.’ Gregory now fell at his feet with his face to the earth, and said, ‘if God approves of such small services, I can well conceive how He will approve of greater. And henceforth I will increase my charities a hundredfold.’ And so he did. (See St. Julian, next col.)—John the deacon, Life of St. Gregory the Great (twelfth century)”

        Other versions of the legend have the thirteenth revealed to be Christ Himself.

        Another explanation as to why the Roman custom was traditionally 13 paupers:

        “This number is not prescribed in the rubrics of the Roman Missal, and many conjectures have been hazarded as to the origin of the number thirteen, some supposing that the thirteenth represented the Lord, whose feet were washed some days before by Mary Magdalene; some, that the thirteenth represents the master of the house where the Last Supper was taken. But the solution given by Cardinal Merati is, that in the earliest times the Pope was wont to wash the feet of twelve sub-deacons; and that from the time of St Gregory the Great it has been the practice to entertain thirteen paupers daily; and he is of opinion that the former practice having become obsolete, the Roman Church revived it, and kept in memory also the charity of St. Gregory, by combining both of these customs on Holy Thursday – namely, both by washing the feet of thirteen poor priests, and entertaining them at supper.”

        They say “nothing is invented as fast as a tradition” and this is nowhere more true than in the maundy rite. It was really common before the fifties for it to take place outside of Mass, the traditional Roman number was 13 not 12, and whether it was paupers or priests (or subdeacons, or the catechumens, or all the monks of a monastery by their abbot) has been varied throughout history. Hence my proposal to organize all the disparate and sometimes conflicting traditions and symbolisms into three separate washings.

        • Agellius permalink
          April 22, 2014 4:43 pm


          This was new to me. Glad to have it explained. Thanks!

  10. Agellius permalink
    April 21, 2014 2:42 pm

    I think it’s wonderful that the Pope goes out and connects with people in this and other ways. But I also think we should keep a distinction between liturgical acts and charitable acts. Aren’t liturgical acts, generally speaking, supposed to be done in church?

    My heart would not be broken if we did away with foot washing. The first time I saw it I thought it was really neat, but having seen it now 25 times or so, I’m starting to agree with David. I think probably most priests do it not out of humility but because it’s expected and it would make waves if they decided not to (they would appear UN-humble).

    I’m sure the Pope has good motives, but I think things like this come across as a stunt.

    I also think it’s an extremely bad idea to have a liturgical rule which the Pope himself publicly and flashily flaunts every year.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 21, 2014 3:00 pm

      “I also think it’s an extremely bad idea to have a liturgical rule which the Pope himself publicly and flashily flaunts every year.”

      Well, I think the rule should be changed, but I also think it is a really low priority. My personal opinion is that by breaking the rule in this manner, he has de facto abrogated it; we are now in a situation where we are waiting for the law to catch up with reality. Like the regulation recently discovered in CT which forbade single women from working between 2am and 6am (or something to that effect): it may have made sense once, but it has been ignored for decades.

  11. Agellius permalink
    April 21, 2014 3:21 pm

    I agree that he has de facto abrogated it. My concern is that he has also de facto abrogated all liturgical rules, by setting the example and precedent of flouting them.

    This probably is less of a concern to people who don’t think liturgical rules are all that important anyway.

  12. Brian Martin permalink
    April 22, 2014 9:20 am

    Didn’t the Pharisees accuse Jesus of breaking Jewish Law by performing miracles on the Sabbath? Too often it seems that our own Pharisees are more interested in the Rules than the message. As far as the Pope flashily and publicly flaunting a liturgical rule…that makes it sound as though it is merely a publicity stunt. Yet there seems to be documentation that he did this long before he became Pope. He seems to be, in a very real way, living his Faith in a very personal way, and not changing because he is now Pope.

  13. Ronald King permalink
    April 23, 2014 8:03 am

    It seems that if liturgy and life are treated separately then liturgy becomes the source of a fragmented church with poor vision.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO permalink*
      April 23, 2014 9:21 am

      I tend to agree, though I think there is room for a discussion of what “separated” and its opposite (“integrated”?) means in this context. My proposal conjoins the two in a very strong way.

  14. Stuart permalink
    April 23, 2014 11:23 am

    Your proposal involves changing something–therefore it is pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage. Why are you still a Catholic? :)

    • Kurt permalink
      April 28, 2014 2:29 pm


  15. Jordan permalink
    April 28, 2014 8:26 am

    Julia observes [April 20, 2014 5:11 pm]

    that and for me personally, having too often observed ritual and service played against each other as a zero-sum game, it provides a much-needed focal point, symbolizing (hopefully in a Real sense, a la Karl Rahner) the reciprocity of “solemn liturgy” and “service and self-abnegation”. Indeed, what is the raison d’etre of the community of Christian faith, if not that these flow into each other?

    I would like to believe that foot-washing rituals provide a much needed interface between the solemn and the soiled as well as the theurgical and the reality of suffering and (emotional/marginal/material) poverty. Still, in a selfie culture it’s tempting, above all for myself, to view the mandatum as a “look at me” moment. Even so, perhaps it is best to wash the feet of as many possible without question, as no person can read the heart of a person who receives washing. The message of selflessness inherent in the mandatum might be a moment of conversion for a person whose participation once hinged on selfishness.

    For some time, I had strongly advocated for the removal of the mandatum from the Holy Thursday evening liturgy. Perhaps the mandatum could be celebrated during Lauds/Morning Prayer of the same day. Julia, your comment has begun to convince me that the symbolism of service must be seen by more people, which would not be the case if the footwashing were in the morning. The visiblity of the the footwashing is essential to maintain the balance between liturgy and service you have illustrated.

Comments are closed.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 860 other followers

%d bloggers like this: