Photo: Pope Francis kisses the foot of a female inmate during the Holy Thursday Mass at Rebibbia prison in Rome in April 2, 2015. (CNS photo/Reuters via L’Osservatore Romano)
On the Feast of St. Agnes, The Vatican News published a letter of the Holy Father approving a change in the norms for the washing of feet at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper. As your Bishop, I want publicly to thank the Holy Father for this act that clarifies in a positive way a norm that was written in 1955 when Pope Pius XII issued his own reforms for the celebrations of Holy Week. This act of Pius XII was a true watershed moment in the renewal of the Roman Liturgy for Holy Week, the most important and central part of our life as a worshipping community. The 1955 norms called for a renewal of the liturgical action of “washing the feet” of twelve men (the Latin is VIRI, males.).
In subsequent years in many dioceses of the United States, including our own, the practice grew up of washing the feet of both men and women, young and old members of the parish community. Over 25 years ago, the U.S. Bishops Conference wrote to the Congregation for Rites asking for a clarification of the word, VIRI, and pointed out that pastoral practice in our country had varied and the bishops would hope that the Congregation would take this into account. The Congregation responded at that time saying that no decision was available at that time and that dioceses might continue to follow whatever the local practice was until there would be a clarification. Thus our Diocese was acting correctly in continuing the practice of including male and female.
While the Congregation’s rescript of January 21 will not change our practice, the Pope has resolved in a very positive way a certain doubt that lingered among some of our brothers and sisters about what is permitted or not. What we have done we will continue to do, now with the blessing of Pope Francis whose sensitivity has removed that doubt.
Media reports, once again, have added their own “spin” to this simple but helpful act. They claim that some “traditional Catholics” fear this will discourage vocations to the priesthood. This is patent nonsense. That reminds me to remind you that I have asked every Catholic in our diocese and every Catholic family to pray daily for vocations to the priesthood for our Diocese.
Media also cite some unidentified persons who hail this as a “change” that is a step toward ordaining women to the priesthood. This is equally nonsensical and irresponsible.
Finally some opine that perhaps we should include persons of any other religious background or none. That too stretches a rite of deep symbolic meaning for Christians that would not be held by persons of other faiths, be they Jews or Muslims or non believers. It is a privilege I have had for many years now to serve as one of the members of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and as Consultor for the Commission for religious relations with Jews. A basic principle of our dialogues is mutual respect for one another’s traditions, a respect that does not try to dilute their meaning in each tradition by a false irenicism that empties the actions of a specific religious tradition in favor of a populist syncretism that ultimately distorts the traditions of us all.
Conclusion: Thank you Pope Francis for this clarification that endorses what we have been doing for some time here. Thanks to all my brother priests whose pastoral sensitivity will lead them to invite men and women, young and old, religious and laity, all members of their parish communities to have their feet washed as a symbolic remembrance of the Lord who washed his apostles’ feet to show concretely that he “who is Lord and Master has come to serve and not to be served”.