[The following was published in the spring of 2005. In light of some dioceses going on record as "winking" at variance from correct practice for Holy Thursday's footwashing -- my hometown jurisdiction of Cincinnati appears to be a case in point -- it seemed a good time for a reprint, with slight editing for clarity or sudden inspiration.]
"Mandatum novum do vobis: ut diligatis invicem, sicut delexi vos, dicit Dominus. Beati immaculate in via: qui ambulant in lege Domini..."
("A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, says the Lord. Blessed are the undefiled in the way: who walk in the law of the Lord...")
For the Christian world (both East and West this year), Holy Week is upon us. As with every year, the Mass of the Lord's Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday (this year on April 5), will be highlighted by the Washing of Feet.
The traditional number of participants with the priest is twelve, and the rubrics are specific that they be men (in Latin, viri selecti). Since most liturgical functions of the laity are open to both men and women, the significance of this restriction is lost on the general Catholic public. What's more, the exception is difficult to justify or explain at the parish level, and even "conservative" parishes are known to allow women to have their feet washed.
Defenders of the practice, in addition to underscoring the need for fidelity to Church discipline in and of itself, are quick to point out the significance of the apostles' all being men, thus the connection with the institution of the ministerial priesthood is reinforced by only men's feet being washed.
While such an opinion is worthy of merit, it may suffer from an error, given the present developments in liturgical law.
It should be pointed out that the sanctuary, or presbyterium, as the place of presiding, was traditionally limited to men only. Since a typical parish church did not have the benefit of a complement of minor clerics, men and boys of the parish would act as legitimate surrogates. (Some can still remember when a layman would be pressed into service at a Missa Solemnis as a "straw subdeacon.") Strictly speaking, and in the present ceremonial books, this is still the case. It is only by legitimate indulgence in certain parts of the world (including nearly all of North America), that women perform liturgical functions -- such as reader, acolyte, and so on -- within the sanctuary. These indults were not instituted all at once, but on a case-by-case basis over the last few decades of official liturgical reform.
Once exceptions were made (beginning with women as lectors, at the celebrant's discretion, in 1971), it was only a matter of time before others would follow, whether at the initiative of the Holy See (as in the case of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, where a female Religious is actually preferred over an unconsecrated male), or an acquiescence to prolonged disobedience. What some defenders of the current directive fail to recognize, is that the connection to the ministerial priesthood was the traditional justification for all liturgical functions being restricted to men. This even applied officially to choristers until 1925, and ushers until 1969. (By the way, how often do we see female ushers at the parishes using altar girls?) The only significant exception that has not been made, is a practice that occurs only once a year, on Holy Thursday.
As to why the current practice of washing only the feet of men is still recognized as proper, the reasons vary. One is the perception that a change would be one more reinforcement of "caving in" to those who violate liturgical directives in Catholic worship. This sends the wrong message to those who endeavor to be compliant, whatever the discomfort. The allowance of female altar servers in 1994, which is said to have occurred against the Holy Father's privately expressed wishes, is a case in point.
There is also a matter of propriety. Depending on the setting, even the age of the priest, it may be considered inappropriate for a man to wash the feet of a woman with whom he is not on sufficiently familiar terms, let alone in public. Again, the sensibilities of those assembled may vary from one region to another, even one parish to another.
Meanwhile, some parishes apparently feel the need to prove something to the world, and will substitute the men-only footwashing with a Washing of Hands amidst the entire assembly. This is rather troubling symbolically, when you consider that it was Pontius Pilate who ceremoniously washed his hands in the presence of the crowd, to declare his resignation of Our Lord's eventual fate.
If symbols are to have any enduring power, their meaning must be inherent, as opposed to being subject to whatever spin their manipulators wish to impose on them. Or have we forgotten what happened to the Emperor who listened to his tailor, at the expense of his own good judgment?