Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the holy week that leads to the Passion of Jesus Christ on Good Friday. Pope Francis has announced major changes regarding this great liturgical event that marks the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, women will have their feet washed during the Eastertide of 2016, on Holy Thursday. This follows a directive that was issued by the Vatican towards the end of last year, when the Pope allowed the change of language on the documents outlining how the celebrations of Holy Thursday will be carried out in churches and cathedrals.
The new decree allows the feet of all “people of God,” including women, to be washed. This is a major shift since only men would previously have their feet symbolically washed by the cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests during the celebrations to mark the beginning of Easter festivities on holy Thursday.
The document, signed by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), states that “pastors may select 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.”
In a letter dated December 20, Pope Francis wrote to Cardinal Sarah saying he had spent much time reflecting on the rite, “with the intention of improving the way in which it is performed so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus’ gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity.”
The language, the decree stated, will change from “The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers ... “ to “Those who are chosen from amongst the people of God are led by the ministers ...”.
Pope Francis also recommended that an “adequate explanation of the rite itself” be provided to those whose feet will be washed.
The decree is dated January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, which means it will be applied to this year’s holy Thursday liturgy on March 24.
Many consider the decree to be a formalisation of what already was taking place in many dioceses, especially in the US.
A statement issued in 1987 by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy stated that “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.”
SERVE ONE ANOTHER
“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 emphasise 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,” the committee said.
Extending the foot-washing ritual to women has long been a passionate debate in theological and liturgical circles. Many church leaders have maintained that the foot-washing scene in the Gospel of John, Chapter 13, on which the rite is based, gives not only an example of humble service but one that also provides a Scriptural foundation for the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
This Easter, the foot-washing rite normally held as part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy should include women and the elderly and not be confined to men and boys, the Vatican has clarified.
The CDW decree says “pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God,” and that they “may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople.”
The move has dismayed some traditionalists, who were frustrated when Pope Francis celebrated the first Mass of the Last Supper following his election at a juvenile prison in Rome.
Among those whose feet he washed were two women and two Muslims. Some critics said at the time that the Pope was bound to obey the Church’s own rubrics, which in this case date from 1955, when Pope Pius XII simplified the Holy Week rites, placing the foot-washing ritual within Holy Thursday Mass. The ritual foot-washing is known as the mandatum because of Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 13:34 that he was giving them “a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
NOT ALLOWED ONTO THE SANCTUARY
Because Catholic women were not allowed onto the sanctuary in the 1950s, the practice was for 12 chosen men — viri selecti — to have their feet washed by the presiding priest or bishop. Defenders of the rubrics have stressed that the mandatum also institutes the (male) priesthood.
After Vatican II, however, the practice in many parts of the world was for people to be taken from the congregation, whether male or female.
In 1987, the US bishops’ liturgy chairman said the principal meaning of the mandatum was the “biblical injunction of Christian charity” and that “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.”
Acknowledging that this practice was at variance with the rubrics, the chairman said that “the intention to emphasize service along with charity ... is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord.” A year later, however, the CDW restated that “the washing of the feet of chosen men” was “a tradition that should be maintained.” In 2008, it repeated that viri selecti meant “male persons.”
Pope Francis performed the rite last year at Rome’s Rebibbia prison. Explaining to the inmates that the rite recalls Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, he told them: “The love that Jesus has for us is so big that he became a slave to serve us, to take care of us, to purify us.”
Mr Muroki is an MA student in Communication at Daystar University, and has worked with the Catholic Church for many years.