09 April 2009

Just Say NO to P.C. foot-washings!

Q: Any opinion on the yearly controversy over the rubrics regarding the Holy Thursday liturgy for foot washing?

A: I always dread this question! My iron-clad rule is: Say the black, do the red. In other words, read the prayers as they are written in the liturgical books and follow the rules as they are. Following this rule, the priest will wash the feet of twelve men from his parish.

Now, the controversy revolves around two elements of this liturgy: 1) who washes? and 2) who gets washed? Some say: everyone washes; everyone gets washed! Others follow the rubric requiring the priest to do the washing, but they usually try to mix and match the washee's to accommodate some weird need to use this liturgy to express the "diversity" of the parish (as if just looking around in the pews doesn't demonstrate this well enough).

The B.I.G. issue, of course, is whether or not women can be included as washee's. The rubrics clearly require that the washee's be men, males (vir). In the U.S., bishops are allowed to grant pastors an exception to include women. Most do, I would bet. Fine.

What this debate about rubrics usually misses is the whole point of the rite itself. Jesus washes the feet of his disciples in order to show them that he is not only their Master and friend but their servant as well. He will go to the cross as a servant for them (and for us all). The priest, acting in the person of Christ, washes the feet of twelve men in order to liturgically enact this revelatory moment.

This liturgy is not about diversity or tolerance or discipleship or community-building. This is the moment when Christ--fully God, fully man--begins to empty himself in preparation for his passion and for the cross. In one very important way, this liturgy is about who the priest is for his parish--since he is and acts in the person of Christ as head of the Church, the priest is symbolizing his servant-leadership of the community. To use foot-washing on Holy Thursday for any other purpose is simply perverse.

Some will argue that since Jesus tells his disciples "to go and do likewise" that this is reason enough to turn the liturgy in a podiatrical free-for-all. If this is the case, then let's follow the example of scripture precisely. Celebrate the liturgy as it is written and then "do likewise." In other words, the priest will wash the feet of twelve men and then another part of the liturgy can be devoted to the "doing likewise." Or maybe a foot-washing free-for-all liturgy can be planned for another time of the year, or even regularly scheduled during Lent. Not perfect solutions by any stretch, I know.

What is tiresome about this yearly debate is the constant refrain of prog liturgists that this event needs to "express diversity." No, it doesn't. There is no good reason for this liturgy to do any such thing. Why this liturgy should yield to the demands of liturgical political correctness is beyond me. There's no demand that baptisms reflect the parish's diversity. Diversity in confessions? Will every Latino couple getting married in the parish need to find an Asian couple to get married with in order to celebrate diversity? Can three black guys get ordained to the priesthood at the same time, or do they need to wait until at least one white guy is ready for ordination?

Of course, the other possibility is to simply skip it. It's optional.


  1. Father,
    Thank you for this post. It answered my question in this area. I love the Holy Thursday Liturgy; it is one of the most beautiful and moving Masses, but when it comes to the foot washing- I cringe when I see women and even children having their feet washed. I wish our bishops would stop making things so PC!
    Have a blessed Triuum and a Happy Easter!

  2. Thank you, Father.

    Our Pastor actually decided to eliminate the foot-washing, knowing that no matter what he did, he was going to get nailed from every side.

    The parish where I grew up (ie teen years), they had 12 lay people who pulled chairs up front, and each was paired with someone. The Pastor was one of them up there, but each person washed only their partner's feet. If I recall correctly. And the choir sang some busy song during that time.

  3. Anonymous9:04 AM

    I get really really annoyed at this stuff. It's so profoundly condescending to imply that unless women are depicted in the washing of the feet, or unless they can be "priests" that somehow we aren't being truly welcome in the Church.

    The liturgy isn't about making me feel good, and the priesthood isn't about recognizing "leadership qualities" either. I resent the implication that I'm somehow not really equal to men unless women are forcibly inserted into the liturgy. Is there no worthwhile leadership and influence unless it is male? I do not need to be a man or assume masculine roles/positions in order to have value.

    Not for anything but how many of us outsource the influence we honestly DO have in refusing to parent and form our children with regards to their character and spiritual development, and then we turn around and clamor for positions that aren't given to us? God only knows how many people have been harmed by that abdication.

    Sorry for the rant. This topic just drives me up the wall. The priesthood isn't a reward for holiness or for being smart/talented, and no one *deserves* "leadership opportunities" in the Church. You go where you're called to go, and do what God tells you to do in accord with who God created you to be. End of story.

  4. Of course, the other possibility is to simply skip it.

    Oh, yes, please!

  5. templariidvm11:36 AM

    Here is my honest question: when my parish washes a diverse set of feet - despite my gentle/polite protestations (and others)- should we just let it pass? Otherwise it is NOT a progressive parish. One thing I love about the parish is that it is rich in traditional ritual. So do we accept this as their singular failing or continue to be the gadfly?

  6. gradchica11:37 AM

    Not a problem for our (Dominican) parish, luckily. Our pastor washes the feet of twelve youngish men (dressed as acolytes, a function at least some actually perform during mass) and that's that. Dignified and moving, since you can "see" him acting as Jesus.

    Once I went to a parish that had everyone walk up and get their hands washed by designated lay people, which was just weird.

  7. Our parish never does it....

    Of course, my parish does the bare minimum all the time. Sigh!

  8. The church I attend does something really strange in my opinion. Not only are men, women, and children the 12 that are washed. Once the priest and deacon are done washing, the entire congregation is invited to come up front and do the washing themselves if want. Another variation in a church I saw (also in Texas) is the foot washees became washers and went out randomly in the pews asking if people also wanted their feet washed. They went up and down the aisles asking people (many said no) which made the whole thing even more awkward. Very strange indeed.

  9. Templar,

    Is that the hill you wanna die on?

  10. templariidvm4:32 PM

    Thanks! I just needed to hear that from someone without a vested interest! It seems that there are "so many battles" we are called to fight . . . this one seemed a little minor to me, given all that I have on my plate right now!

  11. Not sure if it is exactly correct to say that in the U.S. bishops are allowed to grant Pastors the right to wash women's feet. When the Vatican replied to Cardinal Sean's letter where he queried them about this they said he could do it if he felt a pastoral need to do so. I guess it could be argued that once they allowed him do so so, then all bishops could do the same.

    I bet though that many doing foot washing of women never asked their bishop for permission to do so.

  12. Anonymous8:59 PM

    "Is that the hill you wanna die on?"

    Oh my, that cuts to it doesn't it? I will have to digest this.


  13. Anonymous9:04 PM

    At our parish tonight, the priest washed the feet of 12 young people (boys and girls) who are part of this year's confirmation class. The kids were dressed quite casually -- no robes or cassocks -- just pants, running shoes, casual tops, etc. Typical of our parish, in which our pastor "closes his eyes" to anything coming from Rome. Those are his actual words. I know, because he said them to me. The Transference of the Blessed Sacrament was done with great reverence, though -- but the doors of the Tabernacle were closed. I thought they were supposed to be left open.

  14. The War Department and I just got home from the Holy Thursday service, it was the two parish priests & the deacon washing the feet of 12 men. Nice, no warm & fuzzy all inclusive bullarkey. We can live with this.

  15. Sub,

    Not perfect but no biggie...there's no liturgical reason for the deacon to be washing anyone's feet...unless he was just helping with towels, etc.

  16. Dennis, yes it does. When I would get riled up at the nonsense being passed off as Catholic theology in some of my seminary classes and threaten W.A.R.! ;-) My student master would let me rant and rave and then he would say, "Philip, is this the hill you wanna die on?"

    I like the phrase b/c it evokes both a military battle and the crucifixion.

  17. Jeff,

    As we know all too well, bishops have wide latitude in interpreting rubrics, etc. I think once Boston got to do it, there's no reason for the rest of the country to follow suit.

  18. Fr. Phillip, in all honesty I'm uncertain of the direct involvement of the deacon. We were sitting on the side, in the back and minding our two highly exuberant and very tired boys. So my attention was elsewhere for a good portion of time.

    For all I know, the deacon MAY have just been passing out towels while the two priests were washing feet. I'd have needed X-ray vision to see through the crowd.

    But as you say, it's no biggie. For the most part our church is fairly traditional, always in conformance with Rome (at least as far as I know) and VERY prolife.

    In these times thats not too bad. There are far worse in the Dallas diocese.

  19. Interesting terms, but I can see a danger. Let me use a phrase from my military days: ANY fire on a ship, ANY leak, is a BAD thing (even the Barque of Peter). The problem with a bunch of little problems, is that they eventually become one HUGE problem. The Titanic didn't sink just because it hit an iceberg, but because a bunch of systems meant to make it watertight slowly kept failing until it was too late. At what point do we start plugging the holes?

    But both POV's have one key feature: Prudence, a most favored virtue by our brother Thomas, no?

  20. Anonymous9:07 PM

    Just to rattle some cages.
    I would offer that some who want the feet of only men washed (per the Roman liturgy text), want to see the feet of the 12 Apostles washed. The Vat II document on the Laity referred to the laity as apostles. Thus, one could argue that the feet of men and women could be washed.

  21. At my parish in Dallas, the feet of men and boys of various ages were washed this year and last. Does "viri" include men of any age?

    In any case, it's a good change from a couple of years ago when the feet of men and women were washed.

    That was my first Holy Thursday Mass, and I thought it odd that a priest should wash a woman's feet. As an unmarried woman, I don't think I'd feel comfortable with any man touching my feet, least of all a priest. Maybe that's just me, but it just doesn't seem appropriate.

    Ah well. A happy and blessed Easter to you, Father, and to all your readers! :D