Pope Francis performs the foot-washing ritual at a center for disabled people during Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) in 2014 at the Don Gnocchi Foundation in Rome. He decreed this year that women can take part in the ritual. (Osservatore Romano via AFP)

Women can now officially participate in the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual alongside men for the first time since the 1950s, thanks to a decree from Pope Francis that experts say also has symbolic significance and implications for church law.

The decree will have relatively little impact in the United States, however. Women have been participating with men in the foot-washing ritual without the papal decree in many American churches for years, said Phyllis Zagano, professor of religion at Hofstra University. These churches have interpreted the ritual metaphorically as connoting service and humility — rather than as a literal imitation of the biblical Jesus washing the feet of his 12 male disciples at the Last Supper.

Even so, many experts say the papal decree changing the language of the Roman Missal, the text prescribing the format of Catholic Mass or liturgical law, from “men” to “those chosen from amongst the people of God” is symbolically powerful due to its emphasis on inclusion.

“What is being symbolized here is that women are fully included in the people of God,” said Dennis Doyle, professor of theology at the University of Dayton.

The papal decree also makes it difficult for congregations that previously prevented women from participating in the ritual to continue to exclude them without violating liturgical law, according to John Baldovin, a priest in the Society of Jesus and professor of historical and liturgical theology at Boston College. To do so would suggest that the pope is wrong, and the Catholic Church holds the belief that the pope is infallible.

‘Greater prominence’ for women

Kathleen Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, noted that Pope Francis voiced the need for a greater role for women in the Catholic Church very early in his papacy.

Pope Francis’s appointment of Mary Melone as the first female head of a pontifical university last year was one step toward greater inclusion of women in the church hierarchy. The foot-washing decree is one more “significant gesture,” according to Cummings.

The decree also challenges the tradition of a male-dominated Mass, said Zagano.

“The perception that the Catholic liturgy is an all-male affair is disturbing and counteracts the message of Jesus, which is that we’re all made in the image of God,” Zagano said.

Women used to not be permitted behind the railing separating the altar from the rest of the church, preventing the inclusion of women as altar servers. Even though women act as altar servers in some churches now, the decree is still one more step in breaking down “the metaphorical barrier between women and the holy,” according to Zagano.

The pope has included women in his performance of the ritual since 2013, when he washed the feet of women and Muslims at a juvenile detention center in Rome during his first Easter as pope.

However, it appears unlikely that the formal role of women in church leadership will be expanded. Pope Francis stated in the fall of 2015 that women’s ordination was not possible.

Zagano suspects there may have been some “foot dragging” over the foot-washing decree. It took an “awfully long time” from the pope’s request for the liturgical change to the actual decree, she said. Rome issued the foot-washing decree a little over a year after Pope Francis wrote to the Congregation of Divine Worship about his desire to change the wording in the Roman Missal.

Indeed, not everyone is happy with the pope’s decree. Some Catholics, often labeled as conservatives or traditionalists, worry that the change minimizes the importance of Mass.

John Zuhlsdorf, a priest and author of Fr. Z’s Blog, expressed his discontent with the change in a blog post. Zuhlsdorf fears that the change “could be interpreted to mean that liturgical norms mean very little and, worse, that liturgy means very little.”

Adding the ritual to the Mass

Most arguments against women participating in the foot-washing ritual focus on the idea that the rite imitates Jesus washing the feet of the 12 male apostles at the Last Supper as depicted in the Gospel of John.

The foot-washing ritual, however, was not even a part of the Holy Thursday Mass until the late 1950s when Pope Pius XII revised the Holy Week liturgies. Previously, the clergy practiced foot washing away from the presence of church members.

The incorporation of the ritual into the Mass was “to make the Holy Week liturgies more interesting to the people,” Baldovin said. “It was an innovation to put it into the liturgy itself.”

The 1956 publication of the revised Holy Week liturgies specified that 12 men be chosen for the foot-washing ritual. The prevailing thought was for the ritual to be a “liturgical drama,” said Peter Jeffery, author of “A New Commandment: Toward a Renewed Rite for the Washing of Feet.”

From this ritual of imitation developed an understanding that the 12 men chosen to represent the apostles were also a reference to the priesthood, according to Jeffery. But the Latin text guiding the ritual was written in the 1950s and “isn’t ancient tradition,” Jeffery said.

During the foot-washing ritual, the right foot is held over a bowl of water. Water is then poured over the foot and dried with a clean towel.

Historically, men and women have performed and participated in this ritual within the Catholic Church, but most likely not in mixed company, according to Jeffery. Leaders in monastic communities would wash the feet of the lower members. Mother superiors would wash the feet of other nuns. Abbots would wash the feet of other monks.

But due to various understandings of propriety, a man touching the foot or leg of a woman was and is still not permissible in certain cultures.

“So in that context it would’ve been unthinkable to allow women,” Jeffery said.

Practicing a ‘deeper meaning’ of the ritual

Changing the Latin instruction to “people of God” is meant to restore the “full meaning” of the foot-washing ritual, according to the text of the decree released by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

The representation of the disciples, however, still has “an important meaning attached to it,” Cummings said.

Archbishop Arthur Roche’s commentary, released with the decree, states that “the rite carries a double significance.” It is an imitation of the Last Supper ceremony and a practice in living the example of Christ, the statement reads.

The “exterior imitation” takes second place with the changed language of the ritual guidelines, according to Roche. The emphasis is now on the example of Christ and the internal imitation of charity and loving our neighbor.

This is the “deeper meaning” that has been understood and practiced in some churches throughout the United States.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the organization overseeing the American Catholic Church, offered a different understanding of the foot-washing ritual in 1987. The Conference of Bishops was asked if women were permitted to participate even though the Roman Missal specified men. The USCCB Committee of Liturgy read the ritual as allowing men and women “in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world.”

The Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual in the U.S. was a performance of “humble service” as depicted by Jesus in the Gospels. It is a “representation of Jesus as servant of the people,” Zagano said.

The foot-washing decree is “in line” with other actions the pope has taken and echoes the “spirit” of Pope Francis’s papacy, according to Cummings and Doyle.

“He has a particular emphasis with connecting love with service and humility,” Doyle said.

D. Ashley Campbell is a freelancer with expertise in religion based in Washington, D.C. 

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