Ritual change on holy thursday

Pope Francis washing feet Holy Thursday 2015 © Osservatore Romano (KNA)

Pope Francis has opened a symbolic ritual of the Catholic Church to women for the first time this year. They are now officially admitted to the washing of feet at the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday.

At the pope's request, the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship published on 21. January a decree that priests could no longer wash the feet of only men and boys. At the beginning of March, the German dioceses also published the corresponding change in their official gazettes. In Germany and other countries, however, it was already common practice in many churches to include women in the ritual. In the meantime, Bishops Gregor Maria Hanke (Eichstatt), Friedhelm Hofmann (Wurzburg) and Stefan Oster (Passau) have announced that they will put the papal permission into practice for the first time on Holy Thursday.

Choosing participants from among all the members of God's people

The change, now officially approved, is intended to express "the full meaning" of the gesture Jesus performed on his disciples at the Last Supper, Francis said. Priests could henceforth choose the participants in this ritual "from among all the members of the people of God," according to a letter from the pope to the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah.

Francis had already performed foot washing during the Mass of the Lord's Supper on men and women in previous years, sparking resentment in conservative Catholic circles. However, the Vatican had stressed that it was an exception. Francis does not want to break canon law.

Sign of humility

Popes before him had each designated twelve priests for the liturgical act, according to tradition. The gesture recalls Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet the night before his crucifixion.

The symbolic act is a sign of humility and mutual service. Pope Pius XII. In 1955, had established the centuries-old ritual, originally performed on Holy Thursday morning, as a possible component of the Mass of the Lord's Supper. The 1970 Roman Missal explicitly spoke only of male participants. This was confirmed in a 1988 circular from the Congregation for Divine Worship entitled "On the Celebration of Easter and its Preparation".

Foot washing for refugees

Pope Francis washes the feet of several male and female refugees on Holy Thursday evening, including three Muslims of different nationalities and a Hindu from India. Many Catholic bishops in Germany have also announced that they will perform the traditional rite, which recalls a gesture made by Jesus at the Last Supper, on women and refugees as well.

According to Vatican Radio, the pope also washes the feet of three Coptic women from Eritrea, four Catholic Nigerians and an Italian aid worker. Francis heads to a migrant shelter in Castelnuovo di Porto, north of Rome, for the Holy Thursday Mass. Candidates for foot washing were chosen from among nearly 900 residents.

Bishops join in

In Germany, many bishops also want to include women in the ritual. According to the archdiocese, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, washes the feet of twelve women and men who work as helpers in social services.

In Bamberg Cathedral, Archbishop Ludwig Schick performs the ritual on twelve refugee helpers of both sexes. Osnabruck Bishop Franz-Josef Bode will also wash the feet of members of a Christian refugee family from Syria this evening.

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