For the last several years, a few local parishes have included women in the foot-washing (Mandatum) rite in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.
The rubrics of the 1970 Missal, however, specify that only males may be selected.
While Pope Francis has washed women’s feet on Holy Thursday, the fact that he has not changed the rubrics to authorise women’s participation suggests that he intends the Universal Church to keep the Mandatum all-male.
Foot-washing has always had a double symbolism in the Church: Christ’s institution of the ministerial priesthood, and the more general idea of love and service.
Keeping the Mandatum all-male implies that the Church intends the foot-washing at Mass to express the former, rather than the latter. Hence, it is not appropriate for women to take part in the rite.
For parishes keen to include women in the foot-washing, I suggest that, after Mass, the men whose feet the priest has washed process out of the church to wash the feet of all who present themselves: men and women, lay and Religious, Christian and non-Christian.
This is a non-liturgical gesture that can be offered as a sign of the Church’s love and service.
It would make visible the Gospel text: “If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:14-15)
There is historical precedent for using foot-washing to express both meanings. In the 12th century, for instance, the pope washed the feet of 12 sub-deacons after Mass, and the feet of 13 poor laymen after dinner.
Foot-washing is not the privilege of males or the ordained. Mother superiors wash the feet of their nuns on Maundy Thursday.
In the Middle Ages, monarchs washed the feet of their subjects. In 1556, Queen Mary of England – a Catholic – washed the feet of 41 poor women, on her knees.
I hope our parishes can find a way to accommodate those who wish to participate in this rite while respecting the liturgical rubrics that express the mind of the Church.
This should be accompanied by sound catechesis so the faithful understand that the exclusion of women from the Mandatum – or, indeed, from the ministerial priesthood – is not an exclusion from full participation in the life of the Church.