Archbishop Arthur Roche, the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, explained the history of the foot-washing rite in an article published in the Vatican newspaper Jan. 21.
The rite endured many changes and modifications throughout the church's history. For example, the "mandatum" from 1600 said the custom was for bishops to wash, dry and kiss "the feet of 'thirteen' poor people after having dressed them, fed them and given them a charitable donation."
Changes made by Pope Pius XII were reformed again in 1970, further simplifying the rite and omitting the requirement that the number participating be 12. The significance of the current modifications, the archbishop added, "does not now relate so much to the exterior imitation of what Jesus did, but rather the meaning of what he accomplished, which has a universal importance."
"The washing of feet is not obligatory" during the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper, Archbishop Roche said. "It is for pastors to evaluate its desirability, according to the pastoral considerations and circumstances which exist, in such a way that it does not become something automatic or artificial, deprived of meaning and reduced to a staged event."
In 1987, the then-Committee on the Liturgy of the U.S. bishops' conference explained, "The element of humble service has accentuated the celebration of the foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the church and to the world. Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service."
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told journalists that although traditionally 12 men were selected to represent the 12 apostles, the meaning of the rite signifies Jesus' unconditional love.
The decree, issued by Cardinal Sarah and dated January 6, 2016, states that pastors can choose "a small group of the faithful to represent the variety and the unity of each part of the people of God. Such small groups can be made up of men and women, and it is appropriate that they consist of people young and old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated men and women and laity." [Source: http://www.catholicnews.com]
So if you see changes at the foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday, now you know the reason.
Q. 1. What is the Catholic Church teaching regarding the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday? Are women permitted to participate? At my Church, the female gender is literally taking over the Church. Now, we only have altar girls, a female choir, female Eucharistic ministers, etc... and now 12 women for the washing of the feet. Something does not sound right here.
A. 1. The Vatican instruction regarding the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday that is found in the rubric of the Sacramentary states:
"Depending on pastoral circumstances, the washing of feet follows the homily. The men who have been chosen (viri selecti) are led by the ministers to chairs prepared at a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers he pours water over each one's feet and dries them."
The words ('viri selecti') refers to only men.
Q. 2. Then where did this female participation in the washing of the feet originate from?
A. 2. The origin of the washing of the feet of women can be traced to the United States in 1987. This practice has become widespread in other countries, including Canada.
A statement is found on this matter on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website at http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/q&a/general/feet.htm. Paragraphs 4 and 5 state:
"4. Because the gospel of the mandatum read on Holy Thursday also depicts Jesus as the "Teacher and Lord" who humbly serves his disciples by performing this extraordinary gesture which goes beyond the laws of hospitality, the element of humble service has accentuated the celebration of the foot washing rite in the United States over the last decade or more. In this regard, it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world. Thus, in the United States, a variation in the rite developed in which not only charity is signified but also humble service."
"5 .While this variation may differ from the rubric of the Sacramentary which mentions only men ("viri selecti"), it may nevertheless be said that the intention to emphasize service along with charity in the celebration of the rite is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, "who came to serve and not to be served," that all members of the Church must serve one another in love."
Q. 3. In the Dioceses where females participate in the washing of the feet, do their Bishops have the authority to implement this change?
A. 3. Those Bishops do not have the authority except where the law specifically allows them to do so. The proper authority for the interpretation of documents is the Holy See or a two-thirds vote of an episcopal conference. In such a case, where two-thirds of the Bishops of a country have voted in favour of a change due to their interpretation at an episcopal conference, their interpretation must still be sent to the Holy See for ratification (approval and the giving of a formal sanction). Except where the law specifically allows them to do so, no individual Bishop or pastor can give his personal interpretation of a document that originates from the Holy See.
In conclusion, according to the instructions handed down from the Vatican, only men can participate in the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. This all male implementation is to reflect that the Apostles of Jesus were all men.
Would it be appropriate to have a baby girl on Christmas Day to represent the birth of Jesus? Certainly not because Jesus was a boy! Accordingly, it is not appropriate to have females for the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday when the Apostles were all males.