[The following was first 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 foot-washing ritual -- my hometown Archdiocese of Cincinnati is no exception -- we present here our annual reprint, with slight editing for clarity, or sudden inspiration. All that, and I've got some new people in the audience. -- DLA]
“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 21), 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 parishes which are otherwise steadfast in devotion to Church teaching and practice, 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 this position appears worthy of merit, it could be sufficiently challenged, given developments in liturgical law following the Second Vatican Council.
We should be reminded at the offset that the sanctuary, or presbyterium, as the place of presiding, was traditionally limited to men. 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 official ceremonials, 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 -- reader, acolyte, and so on -- within the sanctuary. These indults were not instituted all at once, but at one time or another, in 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 Holy Communion, 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 parishes which use 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 Pope John Paul II'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. I know there are people in "enlightened" parts of the world, especially in "über-enlightened" North America, where this is hard to believe. They should really see more of the world, or at least watch the National Geographic Channel.
Meanwhile, some parishes apparently feel the need to prove something to everybody, and will substitute the men-only foot washing with a Washing of Hands amidst the entire assembly. This is rather troubling, 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 (the staple of most parish liturgy committees) 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?
Aside from whether we are to assume, that the original premise for the footwashing in our tradition is intended to remind us of the institution of the priesthood (and there is evidence to doubt that), it is best to follow the correct discipline of the Church in this matter. Even in our politically correct day and age, we have not entirely evolved beyond the separation of roles for male and female, and not just for setting preferences in the lifeboat. We are also obliged to set an example for ourselves and others. If I am a pastor who can play fast and loose with how the rules apply to me, how can I expect others to listen to me? Who determines what rules are okay to break or not to break?
“Charity in all things” is more than simply being nice. It is also a reason for doing good and avoiding evil, which means setting a proper example. And it is that example, which was the inspiration for our Lord washing the feet of his disciples.
It's not too much to ask for one evening of the year, don't you think?
Or don't you???