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Vatican official traces foot-washing rite’s history, says it should not be given undue importance

January 22, 2016

Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments commented on the Congregation’s new decree concerning the rite of the washing of the feet, which was issued at Pope Francis’s request.

Archbishop Arthur Roche traced the history of the foot-washing rite from the seventh century, when a liturgical ordo called upon a bishop to wash the feet of the clerics who lived in his home. In the 12th  century, the Roman Pontifical assigned the rite of foot washing to after Vespers on Holy Thursday, with the feet of 12 subdeacons being washed from the thirteenth century in Rome.

The Roman Missal of 1570, Archbishop Roche continued, mentioned that clerics’ feet should be washed but did not specify the number 12; it directed that the hymn Ubi Caritas be chanted during the rite, which concluded with the Lord’s Prayer.

The Ceremonial of Bishops of 1600 stated that after Vespers or at lunch, the bishop was to wash and kiss the feet of 13 poor persons after feeding them. Later, only clerics’ feet were washed, apart from local customs in which the feet of the poor-- or in Paris, of children-- were washed.

With Pope Pius XII’s reform of 1955, the Holy Thursday Mass was celebrated during the evening, and for pastoral reasons, it was permitted for a priest publicly to wash and dry the feet of 12 men (kissing their feet was not mentioned). This was “an imitative sign, like a sacred representation” of Jesus’ actions at Holy Thursday, Archbishop Roche commented.

The Roman Missal of 1970 further changed the rite: the number 12 was omitted, the Ubi Caritas was moved to the procession of the gifts, and the Lord’s Prayer no longer concluded the rite, as its use originated in the days when the rite was celebrated outside Mass. The rubric that viri (men) were to be selected, said Archbishop Roche, had “mimetic (imitative) value.”

The “current change” to the foot-washing rite, which allows for the washing of the feet of selected members from the entire People of God, has changed the significance of the rite, Archbishop Roche continued. “The value now relates not so much to the exterior imitation of what Jesus has done,” and more to as his “gift of self ‘to the end’ for the salvation of mankind, his charity which embraces all” and offers an example.

“The washing of feet is not mandatory,” he added, and pastors should “evaluate its suitability” in their circumstances. The rite should not be “automatic or artificial, deprived of meaning,” nor should it become “so important that all the attention of the Mass” is focused on it.

Recalling the text of the decree, Archbishop Roche said that a small group that is representative of the People of God should be chosen: the ordained and the lay faithful, the single and the married, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick.


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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: unum - Jan. 24, 2016 10:16 AM ET USA

    The conflicting and incomplete communications from the Vatican continue. We, the laity, are still waiting for the Vatican to "teach as Jesus did".

  • Posted by: claire5327 - Jan. 22, 2016 10:01 PM ET USA

    Foot washing was practiced in all the old cultures, the Chinses had them as well. The hosts or the Inns all suplly hot water in a feet washing vessel for the travels who were either on ther feet with or without sandles walked or on horsbaks all day needed to clean up (purify)before retire for the night! Jesus meant to purify the Apotles, they walk with devotion to do His HOLY WORK that each person’s feet must carry them in Holiness, stay on His Righeous Path and going forward with His Light!

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jan. 22, 2016 8:27 PM ET USA

    Well, taking one of the most significant events in the gospel and now basically minimizing it suggests the most prudent course is simply to drop it. Support for this position is strongly given by the "value" being "changed" to reflect His "gift of self" We have that in spades in the Eucharist.