Washing of women’s feet on Maundy Thursday – Pope Francis does it. Again. And Indian women activists hope to be ordained as priests

APRIL 2015


Washing of women’s feet on Maundy Thursday – Pope Francis does it. Again.

And Indian women activists hope to be ordained as priests

Liturgical law does not permit the feet of women to be washed at the Maundy Thursday Mass.

If performed, the action is illicit.

The rubrics authorize that only the feet of men are to be washed by the priest.


Have we entered an age of a new gnosticism?


Posted on 29 March 2013 by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Distinguished canonist Ed Peters makes good distinctions about the Holy Father’s disregard for the Church’s duly promulgated law when he chose to wash the feet of women on Holy Thursday. My emphases and comments.

(My emphases highlighted in yellow. –Michael)

Retrospectives on the Mandatum rite controversies
March 29, 2013

It’s a very big Church and there are many issues competing for the pope’s attention. Let me address just that issue I know something about, namely, ecclesiastical law, and try to talk sensibly about it. I’ll leave to finer minds the task of situating legal concerns in the wider ecclesial context.

For starters, perhaps Fr. Lombardi was misquoted or taken out of context when he apparently said, “the pope’s decision [to wash the feet of women on Holy Thursday] was ‘absolutely licit’ for a rite that is not a church sacrament.” That remark is confusing because it implies that liceity is a concept that applies only to sacraments; but of course, liceity is an assessment of any action’s consistency with applicable law (canon, liturgical, sacramental, etc). One would never limit questions of Mass liceity to, say, the matter used for the Eucharist or the words of institution (that is, the sacrament at Mass) [NB] as if all other rubrics were merely optional. No one understands liceity so narrowly, [ehem… I think some people do.] and so, as I say, we are probably dealing with an incomplete answer.

In any case, I think some conclusions can be drawn about the foot-washing incident already.

[Here is an obvious point that must be made to help liberals sober up a little.]

1. If liturgical law permitted the washing of women’s feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, [then] no one would have noticed the pope’s doing it. What was newsworthy (apparently, massively newsworthy) is that, precisely because liturgical law does not authorize it, the pope’s performance of the action was huge news.

2. I and many others have long been open to revising the Mandatum rite so as to permit the washing of women’s feet [I am not among them.  However, Peters is making a different point…] although I understand that strong symbolic elements are in play and I might be under-appreciating arguments for the retention of the rite as promulgated by Rome. I take no position on that larger issue, it being ultimately a question for experts in other disciplines. My focus is on the law as issued by Rome (c. 838).

[We get to the crux of the canonical issue…] 

3. Few people seem able to articulate when a pope is bound by canon law (e.g., when canon law legislates matters of divine or natural law) and when he may ignore it (e.g., c. 378 § 1 on determining the suitability of candidates for the episcopate or appointing an excessive number of papal electors contrary to UDG 33). Those are not hard cases. Most Church laws, however, fall between these two poles and require careful thinking lest confusion for—nay, dissension among—the faithful arise. Exactly as happened here[In spades!] Now, even in that discussion, the question is not usually whether the pope is bound to comply with the law (he probably is not so bound), but rather [pay attention…]how he can act contrary to the law without implying, especially for others who remain bound by the law but who might well find it equally inconvenient, that inconvenient laws may simply be ignored because, well, because the pope did it.  [That, ladies and gents, is the problem.  Liberals are going to claim that because of what Francis did, they can do whatever they wish.  Indeed, they will claim that others who uphold the clearly written law are wrong to up hold the law.  They will, like gnostics, appeal to some vague super-principle which trumps all law (and reason).]



4. A pope’s ignoring of a law is not an abrogation of the law but, especially where his action reverberated around the world, it seems to render the law moot[Moot – “doubtful, theoretical, meaningless, debatable”] For the sake of good order, then [Peters’ own recommendation…], the Mandatum rubrics should be modified to permit the washing of women’s feet or, perhaps upon the advice of Scriptural and theological experts, the symbolism of apostolic ministry asserted by some to be contained in the rite should be articulated and the rule reiterated. What is not good is to leave a crystal clear law on the books but show no intention of expecting anyone to follow it. That damages the effectiveness of law across the board.

Get that last point?

What is not good is to leave a crystal clear law on the books but show no intention of expecting anyone to follow it. That damages the effectiveness of law across the board.

This is a huge problem.

Liberals such as Michael Sean Winters, who does not in this matter seem to make distinctions at all, think that Peters and I are “obsessively focused on whether or not a bishop or priest can/should wash the feet of women during the Mandatum Rite in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper”. He is wrong.  That’s just your usual liberal misappropriation of the situation.

Peters and I are actually concerned about the good order of the Church. A canonist and a man in Holy Orders ought to be. Winters, on the other hand, writes for the paper of record for dissenters and antinomians.

What this foot washing issue does is reveal how vast the gulf is now that divides those who maintain that order, law and reason are necessary in the Church and society and those who, like gnostics who possess secret powers of interpretation of even more secret teachings, apply super-principles which trump lesser matters such as reason, law and order.

The new gnostics (liberals) call upon “fairness” and feelings. There can be no valid response possible by argument or reason or precedent.

For a long time I have argued that we need a level of liturgical celebration which brings about an encounter with the transcendent, which cuts beyond our (by now) useless linear arguments.  People today can’t follow a linear argument.  You get to the end and they conclude, “That might be true for you…” Now, however, we may be seeing more clearly, in reactions to what Francis is doing (not necessarily in what Francis is doing), the exaltation of the golden calf of immanence.

Have we entered an age of a new gnosticism, wherein only those who feel a certain way are the true authoritative interpreters?

188 responses


“absolutely licit”…. MY FOOT!


Posted on 2 April 2013 by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Spotted on the Facebook page of Ed Peters, canonist.

Every time I turn around, someone is citing Fr. Lombardi’s comment that the pope’s washing of women’s feet on Holy Thursday is “absolutely licit” because it’s not a sacrament. Now, whatever one might finally conclude about the liceity of the pope’s action, it simply CANNOT be defended on the grounds that Lombardi uses.

Consider: the homily is not a sacrament (obviously); the homily is optional at weekday Masses (c. 767 § 3); the homily is reserved to clerics (c. 767 § 1). Okay? So, if a priest decides, as a gesture of charity and to model Christ’s inclusivity, to allow a woman (well, any lay person) to preach the homily at a weekday Mass, is his action suddenly licit? And don’t tell us this does not really happen.

Where did the “absolutely licit” thing come from? People have sent email asking about this.  Here’s the deal.

There was a briefing of journalists in Rome by the papal spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, about the Holy Week ceremonies.  The issue of the washing of the feet of women came up, of course.

Lombardi’s remarks include the phrase (in translation)…

I would not make a big theory of this. I say: it is a pastoral reading of this event which I believe to be absolutely licit (legitimate?) and also present in the Church….

Okay… it is unclear what is “absolutely licit” in Lombardi’s remarks.  More below. But I think he is talking about Pope Francis choice to flout the rubrics of Holy Mass which all bishops and priests are obliged to follow.

On the site of Vatican Radio, there is a summary of the briefing including extensive quotes from Fr. Lombardi’s remarks.  Have a look at the original… because we don’t want to get this wrong or misrepresent him (emphasis mine):

[…] The Italian is strange, even tortured.  This led me to ask a Roman friend to help me out with the translation just so that I wasn’t posting something unfair.  Keep in mind that Fr. Lombardi is speaking off the cuff, not from a prepared statement.  He is probably getting mixed signals from different offices of the Curia.  He probably has his own views which he is more or less struggling to hide even while revealing them…. so… here is the translation with a couple additions for clarity (and my emphases):

“The classic norm of the liturgical tradition is of men, thinking of the twelve Apostles and thus of the fact that it is Jesus who does the washing of the feet, in the Cenacle, to his twelve Apostles, who were men, obviously. Then in this sense tradition wants it to be twelve men… The pastoral practice in the Church of the shepherds who have “the odour of the sheep” – as we know – is that the concrete situation is taken very much into account, shall we say the community for which and in which one celebrates and the meaning that such gesture  – which is not a Sacrament of the Church,  but a meaningful rite inserted also in the Liturgy, yet one not codified by fundamental laws of the Church – can be lived in keeping with the pastoral meaning that it takes (in a given context).



This is so true, it seems to me, that we have seen also in the past photographs of Cardinal Bergoglio, (then) Archbishop of Buenos Aires, doing the washing of the feet including women. Therefore it was not something that was invented yesterday in particular. I believe that many of us who have a certain pastoral experience in a variety of situations either of youth groups or else have used this interpretation many times over the course of their pastoral life. Therefore we are speaking of a community, where the Pope was yesterday, a small community, it was not the Cathedral of St. John with the whole diocese of Rome: it was a small community,  for an important part made of youth and also young girls, where the gesture of the washing of the feet had a very important role in the event and in its meaning of showing the spirit of service and love of the Lord and to let this community experience it, a community that understands things that are very essential (singular declension in the original Italian: a typo?) and simple (plural in the original), since they were not experts of Liturgy. In this sense it seems to me that it was completely normal that there would be also two girls in the group of 12 people who received the washing of the feet, because that of girls is an important component of the community that lives it experience in the Institute of Casal del Marmo. Moreover, since the criterion with which these twelve(people) were chosen was precisely that of being representative also of the diverse ethnicities and components present in the community of Casal del Marmo, in this community girls are an important part and therefore it would have been strange not to include them in this group.  I would not make a big theory of this. I say: it is a pastoral reading of this event which I believe to be absolutely licit (legitimate?) and also present in the Church and I believe it was also that of the experience of the (then) Archbishop of Buenos Aires”.


“classic norm” and “tradition” v. “pastoral practice” and “concrete situation”?

“yet one not codified by fundamental laws of the Church”?  It IS codified!  In the rubric of the Missale Romanum in force now.  It was explained in the Congregation for Divine Worship’s document Paschale solemnitatis 51. The Congregation has answered questions about the practice.

At the end of this, I repeat…

We can flout the rubrics anytime we want for the sake of a sentimental motive … MY FOOT.

Just because the Pope did something in some ceremony which, apparently because it was small and in a jail, mattered a lot to the inmates but I guess didn’t really change anything for the rest us – except for the fact that the Pope did it and it was ballyhooed by the powers that be all over the world, that doesn’t mean that any bishop or priest can take upon himself to change the clear and important rubrics of Mass…. any rubrics.

NB: To the liberals reading this who have already spread the falsehood that people like me, or Peters, because we write about this, are obsessed with the washing of women’s feet or are mired in the minutiae of liturgical rules, I respond: There is a bigger issue which you, apparently, can’t figure out because you are almost always wrong about almost everything.  

55 responses


Foot washing on Holy Thursday. Wherein Fr. Z rants


Posted on 31 March 2015 by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

In the Roman Rite, the washing of feet on Holy Thursday is an option.  It may be left out without disturbing the integrity of the Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a legitimate option).

Watch now as all sorts of people demand that bishops and priests violate the law because of what His Holiness Pope Francis did last year and plans to do this year.  Watch as all manner of clerics hide behind the Pope when they choose openly to break the law and violate their promise to uphold the Church’s laws.

The problem with that is, liturgical law is real law.  It must be obeyed.

The Church’s liturgical law is not ambiguous: only males can be chosen for this optional rite, and they should be men: viri selecti.  Vir means “man”. Vir cannot, period, mean a female.  And despite what Facebook says, there are two sexes, not dozens.  Also, you really don’t get to choose which you are. Vir is male.

Also, lest it go unsaid, I am not speciesist, but the Church still limits this foot-washing rite to human beings.

Next, the Pope, who is the Church’s Legislator, can do A, B or C as it pleaseth him to do.  If he wants to set aside the law, so be it.

The rest of us, however, are obligedto obey the law.  The ordained made promises at ordination to obey the Church’s laws.

So, we have a couple of choices when it comes to the foot-washing rite (the “Mandatum” or “Command” – whence the word Maundy): don’t do the rite, or do the rite properly.

Two main excuses are offered in defense of the abuse of washing the feet of women.

The first excuse is that of “hospitality”.  “Hospitality” suggests women must be “included”.  Never mind that Mass isn’t that sort of “meal”.  In the USA some might obtusely cite a note – having no canonical authority – from the (then) NCCB’s Committee on Liturgy in 1987 which uses this “hospitality” argument.

The second excuse is that of “inclusive” language, to which some of a certain age still cling.  Keep in mind that quite a few clerics, of a certain age, haven’t really updated themselves by looking at the most recent edition of the Roman Missal, in English much less in Latin.  They are snug in their fading memories that the English words in the now long-obsolete ICEL Sacramentary, “men” and “man”, couldn’t possibly mean “males”!  That would be sexist!  Again, Latin “vir” means “male”.

To repeat, when the Pope decides to derogate for himself from the liturgical law, that derogation doesn’t abolish the law for everyone else.  The law remains.



We priests – and bishops – must obey the liturgical law which we do not have the authority to break or change.

The Church is not lawless.  The Church is not merely a display case for people’s passing whims and changing fashions.

When and if the Holy Father wants the law to change for everyone, he will make sure that it is changed for everyone in the proper way and he will let everyone in the world know about it.  The Holy Father knows how to change laws and promulgate the changes.  Doing something in private on his own doesn’t change the law.

Until the Roman Pontiff changes the law, the law stands.

Men only, or no foot washing at all.  Those are the two legitimate options.

Fathers, if you are afraid of the women in your parish, just opt out of the foot washing rite entirely.  It is only an option. Fathers, if you don’t want the headaches and complaints and threats and tears and anger and hate-mail and voice-mail and glares and accusations, just say “no” to the foot washing option.   Let the Mass be the Mass without the controversy.  You are not obliged to violate the law and your promises.


4 out of 53 responses

1. I agree with you 100%, Father; nonetheless, the Pope’s action is problematic. [Sure it is. The Holy Father, God love him, has by these gestures created an opportunity for antinomians to use the person of the Vicar of Christ as their human shield. Still, we can use the occasion to remind everyone that we are bound to observe the laws as they are.]

2. Our new pastor has incorporated foot washing this year in our Holy Thursday Mass. He was ordained several years ago and this is his first parish. It has not been included in our Holy Thursday ceremony since we have been members. In his explanation in our bulletin, he stated that the Pope could do what he wants but that we will be following liturgical law and washing the feet of young men. The purpose being to focus on the priesthood. He mentioned the confusion among the laity and handled any brewing controversy very well. We have a vocal feminist element which has intimidated previous pastors. Bless these newly minted priests. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]

3. But Father, I don’t do the “optional” foot washing using the argument, similar to Dr. Peter’s, that it probably best belongs to the Chrism Mass where the Bishop would wash the feet of twelve of his priests. STILL, every year I receive complaints from some, albeit a small minority, who want it done in the parish.
There doesn’t appear to be any win-win situation, regarding the Mandatum, for the parish priest (nor for eliminating female servers, nor for the distribution of Holy Communion under both kinds on a regular basis, nor for the laity presenting a plastic
lined pyx during the distribution of Holy Communion (presumably to bring Jesus to the sick) and others. These things are now so deeply rooted they are nearly impossible to eliminate. And, any priest who tries……God help him!) –Fr. John

4. At the Kensington CA Carmel, where I will celebrate Holy Thursday according to the traditional Dominican Rite for the nuns, there will be no Mandatum.

Mother will wash the nuns’ feet at another time in their refectory. This seems an excellent solution even in religious houses of men. –Fr. Augustine Thompson OP


The Pope washes the feet of twelve detainees in Rebibbia prison


Vatican City, April 2, 2015 (VIS) – This afternoon Pope Francis celebrated Holy Mass “in Coena Domini” in Rome’s Rebibbia penitentiary, where he arrived around 5.15 p.m. He greeted the authorities, staff and a group of detainees in the prison courtyard. Shortly before 6 p.m., in the “Padre Nostro” church in the New Complex of Rebibbia, the Pope presided at the Holy Mass that begins the Easter Triduum, during which he washed the feet of twelve detainees, six men and six women from the nearby women’s penitentiary…


Pope asks prisoners to pray that Christ make him a better servant


By Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service, Vatican City, April 2, 2015


Pope Francis kisses the foot of a female inmate Thursday at Rome’s Rebibbia prison.




In a moving ceremony that recalled how Jesus loved the world so deeply that he lowered himself to serve and died for everyone’s sins, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 prison inmates, plus a small toddler who lives with his incarcerated mother. “Jesus loved us, Jesus loves us, but without any limits, always, all the way to the end,” he said during the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper. “He does not tire of loving anyone, he loves all of us” so much that he gave his life in order “to give life to us, for each one of us … for you, for you, for me, for them,” he said, pointing to the men and women inmates gathered in the “Our Father” chapel in Rome’s Rebibbia prison complex. […]

After his homily, the pope removed his vestments and put on a large white garment tied over his alb. He kneeled before each of the 12 detainees: most were Italian, others came from Nigeria, Congo, Ecuador and Brazil. Two aides assisted the 78-year-old pope in kneeling and pulling him back up.

Before washing the foot of a mother from Nigeria, the pope washed the tiny foot of her small boy, who calmly watched the proceedings from his mother’s lap. She was one of many female detainees at the Mass who live in the prison’s maternity section, which houses incarcerated mothers with their children who are younger than three.

When the Mass ended, the pope patiently and happily made his way down the center aisle that had now become choked with inmates eager for a hug and blessing. The pope’s guards, squeezed a few spots behind, appeared relaxed.

The evening Mass was the second of two Holy Thursday liturgies over which the pope presided. The first was a morning chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

As Holy Thursday and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood, the pope continued a tradition he started by having lunch with a small group of priests from the Diocese of Rome.

The Vatican newspaper said the pope used the occasion to have the 10 priests talk to him about their ministry, especially those who were working in very difficult circumstances, and to encourage them in their mission.


Pope Francis celebrates Holy Thursday by washing prisoners’ feet


By Inés San Martín,
Vatican correspondent
April 2, 2015

In what has become a vintage touch of his pastoral style, Pope Francis once again celebrated the Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper at a prison, where he washed the feet of 12 inmates, men and women, from Nigeria, Congo, Ecuador, Brazil, and Italy — as well as one toddler. […]

On the first Holy Thursday after his election as pope, Francis washed the feet of 12 young people, not all of them Catholic, while he celebrated Mass at Rome’s juvenile detention center Casal del Marmo.

In 2014, Francis visited the center “Don Gnocchi” for the elderly and disabled. On that occasion, the participants in the foot-washing ritual ranged in age from 16 to 86, and several were in wheelchairs with their feet swollen or disfigured.

While he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio used to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass outside of the local cathedral, choosing to do so instead in detention centers, hospitals, hospices, and rehabilitation centers for drug addicts.

Francis isn’t the first pope to celebrate a Mass at a prison; Benedict XVI, for example, did so in 2007. He is, however, the first one in modern history to celebrate a Holy Thursday liturgy outside either St. Peter’s Basilica or the Basilica of St. John Lateran.

The fact that Francis once again included women in the ritual may stir new umbrage among tradition-minded Catholics, who point out that Church rules technically specify that only men should take part because Jesus’s disciples on Holy Thursday were all male.


3 out of 108 comments

1. Washing women’s feet is no big deal. Are they not human feet, like those of men? The antiquated barriers of patriarchal culture are becoming an obstacle to the mission of the church as a sacrament of Christ’s presence in our midst. The male-only priesthood is not a dogma of the Catholic faith. Hope Pope Francis starts ordaining women soon*, especially nuns! I believe in my heart that this is what Jesus would do, here and now.

2. Father Z had a good explanation for the governance of this practice. That the Pope can wash anyone’s feet as he is the Authority on Teaching. Everyone else, as you say, even Bishops, must seek the Pope approval prior to changing the practice format. Women are not allowed to wash anyone’s feet during this occasion. Priests in local parishes are violating their oaths if they allow this to occur. 

3. There is I believe, a canonical law in effect requiring that only males can get their feet washed. The Pope is the ultimate legislator and he may bend or not the rule for himself as he sees fit. This however does not apply to the rest of the Church.

*Indian liberal feminist-“theologians” waste no time in making heard their demands for a female priesthood:




Fighting for the Maundy Thursday and women priesthood


By Ashutosh Shukla, February 10, 2015

Known for otherwise keeping pace with time and adopting outreach programs, the Church has seen certain issues which have eluded them, like Maundy (Holy) Thursday – a ritual when feet are washed by priests – and priesthood for women.


Astrid Lobo-Gajiwala, a member of the community, said: “Though we manage to get a lot of things done from the Church, like being allowed to kiss the feet of Jesus and going up to the altar, the addressing of this issue has been slow. The present Pope himself washed the feet of women, but the ground reality is still as it used to be.” Gajiwala has taken up this issue with the Church for nearly 15 years now, in addition to that of women priesthood.

Dr. Sister Pauline Chakkalakal, who has been taking up the issue for the past 20 years, said that the New Testament (of the Bible) presents discipleship and ministerial service as universally inclusive. She added that people were not restricted by sex, marital status, social class, race or nationality. The nun further informed: “According to Jesus’ standard, eligibility for ministry is determined not in terms of gender roles, but in accordance with God’s choice of persons, considering their particular charisma and leadership qualities. In the letter to the Hebrews (5: 1-10) where Jesus is called ‘High Priest’, the emphasis is on love and service, and not on masculinity or femininity.”

Gajiwala said that it was poignant that women may be consulted, but the final word always belongs to a parish priest or bishop. “Decision making still eludes us and I guess it always will as long as governance in the Church is linked to ordination and women are banned from being ordained,” she added.

Fr Nigel Barrett, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Bombay said that priesthood is something that will need to be resolved by the Vatican and Pope, who will deliberate the topic. Giving the example of the leader of the church, he added: “The Pope washed the feet of inmates in a juvenile home that had both male and female convicts. There is no clear cut directive for us to do the same.” The priest added that if any directives are issued, they would be happy to adopt them.


Whenever the Pope washes the feet of women at Mass on Maundy Thursday (and this is the third successive year that he has done it), two groups of people are exhilarated: liberals who will now argue that if the Pope himself “ignores the law” (to cite canon lawyer Dr. Ed Peters), then they too are not required to be absolutely bound by the rubrics, and women’s ordination activists who feel that their hope-less case is given a chance.


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Categories: Liturgical Abuses, Ordination of Women Priests Movement in India

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