In her 50th Easter season as a nun, Sister Antonia Sanchez participated in something new.
For the past 49 years, since she joined the order of Religious Mary Immaculate at age 16, Sanchez has watched priests wash the feet of men on Holy Thursday. This week, Sanchez was before the altar herself at the nation’s preeminent Catholic shrine. She was the one removing her shoes and socks. And then the pope’s representative to America washed her feet.
This was the first Easter since Pope Francis decreed in January that priests can include women in the foot-washing ritual, one of the most moving rites of the holiest week on the church’s calendar. The change had already happened in some churches, but since Francis made it official, it is now spreading worldwide.
Sanchez has been waiting for this for half a century. “I said, ‘Maybe sometime,'” she said. “This is the first time the pope said this opportunity has to be for ladies too. In this moment, I feel I’m privileged.”
The change is the most recent of Pope Francis’s slow but symbolically powerful efforts to expand women’s roles in church life.
On his first Easter after becoming pope in 2013, Francis washed the feet of women and Muslims at a juvenile detention center in Rome. While he has disappointed liberals within the church with his reiteration that women can’t be priests and his decision not to include women in his recent synods, he has also drawn attention to the gender wage gap, and he recently ended an inquiry into American nuns that many saw as anti-women.
As priests around the world took both women’s and men’s feet in their hands on Thursday, their gesture of humility represented to many the progress of inclusion in the Catholic church.
The Holy Week tradition models Jesus’s call for humility when he washed the feet of his Apostles at the Last Supper. In the gospel that was read on Thursday at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the country’s largest Catholic church, the apostle Peter asked, “Master, are you going to wash my feet?” And Jesus responded, “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.” Jesus also instructed the apostles at the Last Supper to continue the tradition of foot-washing.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who is the Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, spoke about the rite in his homily. “By cleansing their feet, he demonstrated his desire to cleanse their souls of sin,” he said. “Only God stooping down to us can lift us up.”
Then the archbishop removed his peaked hat and left his throne-like seat. As the choir sang, “Love one another as I have loved you,” each of the 12 people chosen by the Basilica to represent the 12 disciples solemnly removed their shoes, and Viganò knelt before each of them with a bowl and pitcher.
For centuries, foot-washing was done among clergy only, away from the presence of the laity. Men and women both participated, but most likely not in mixed company, according to Peter Jeffery, who wrote a book on the foot-washing tradition. Leaders in monastic communities would wash the feet of the lower members. Mother superiors would wash the feet of other nuns.
Then in 1956, Pope Pius XII revised the Holy Week liturgies to make foot-washing part of the Holy Thursday Mass.
The incorporation of the ritual into the Mass was “to make the Holy Week liturgies more interesting to the people,” said John Baldovin, a Jesuit priest who teaches historical and liturgical theology at Boston College. Pope Pius XII’s document specified that 12 men be chosen.
Pope Francis changed that language in the Roman Missal, the text which prescribes the format of Catholic Mass. Now it says instead of “men,” “those chosen from amongst the people of God.”
In many American churches, women have been participating in the ritual alongside men for years. These churches have interpreted the act as connoting service and humility, not as simply reenacting a gesture involving 12 male apostles.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which oversees the American Catholic Church, declared in 1987 that even though the Roman Missal specified men, women could also participate “in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world.”
The Rev. Michael J. Flynn, the secretariat of divine worship at the USCCB, said his organization does not track how many of the tens of thousands of parishes in the U.S. wash men’s or women’s feet, or include foot-washing in their Holy Thursday observance.
But he said that nearly every parish does choose to perform the well-liked rite, and the new guidelines will likely spur holdouts to start including women if they did not before.
“Given the understandable publicity over this recent change, it seems to me that there will be a certain level of expectation in most areas that both women and men will be included in the Washing of the Feet,” Flynn wrote in an email. “Like any change in our rituals, this alteration invites us to reexamine why we do it to begin with…. Perhaps part of Pope Francis’s motivation for altering the ritual is to remind us exactly who our neighbors are, whom we are called to serve.”
Not all Catholics looked favorably on the change. Some conservatives voiced disapproval, including the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a blogger popular among traditional Catholics. In a blog post, he said he feared that the change “could be interpreted to mean that liturgical norms mean very little and, worse, that liturgy means very little.”
But for many in the church, including women in the foot-washing service was not a tough decision.
“It was very simple. The pope changed the rules,” said Monsignor Walter Rossi at the Basilica of the National Shrine. The imposing domed shrine in Northeast Washington, central to American Catholicism, had never included women before in the rite. “We quickly said, ‘Oh, this is what we’re doing now.’”
Rossi said he recognized that the National Shrine is “a model for liturgy for the country.” When the cameras that broadcast the Basilica’s Mass online and on television went live on Thursday night, he knew many eyes would be on the foot-washing. “People watching on TV will be looking to see if we do it.”
The more interesting question for the Basilica was whom to invite for the honor of having their feet washed.
The church picked eight men and four women; members of its staff and two people who were homeless; lifelong devotees and a recent convert.
Rosie Armstrong of Gaithersburg became a Catholic last Easter, and this year, she was in front of hundreds of people who packed the Basilica’s long nave on Thursday evening.
Raised Baptist, Armstrong, 64, said felt the Catholic church was the place for her. “This was my home, where all races are family. It feels like my life is complete now, because I’m part of the community.”
When Viganò knelt before her and poured water over her right foot, she pushed her hands together in prayer.
“It cleanses the spirit. It cleanses the soul. It cleanses your whole being,” she said.
Lucy Guevara, 30, said she has trekked across the District to the Basilica frequently during her four years as a medical student at Georgetown University. “I felt that this was the place I needed, to recharge and get my bearings,” she said. “The shrine changed my life in the best way possible.”
Standing in the sacristy minutes before the Thursday Mass started, she said she would be praying for the sort of humility Jesus showed when he washed his disciples’ feet, so that she can connect with her neediest patients. “It’s going to take a lot in me to try not to cry.”
Each of Viganò’s 12 foot-washings was brief, about 20 seconds. But they were filled with meaning. Guevara gasped with emotion as the archbishop rinsed and dried her foot under the Basilica’s gleaming mosaic ceilings.
Guevara said she found it particularly potent to be in the first group of women honored in this way at the national shrine. “It’s such a great stage to show we are open to change as a faith and accepting of it,” she said.
Eddie Caparas, who has been one of the people whose feet were washed at the Basilica every year since 1998, except when he was having bypass surgery in 2011, said it never before crossed his mind to wonder why women weren’t there alongside him.
“It never dawned on me. But now that they’re here, I think it’s welcome. Regardless of who you are and what you are, it should be both men and women together,” Caparas said in the sacristy.
And then three bells clanged, his cue to proceed out onto the altar. And side by side with women and men of faith, he put his right foot forward.
D. Ashley Campbell and Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred in one instance to Easter Week, which is the week following Easter. It should have referred to Holy Week, which is the week that precedes Easter.