Reform of the Holy Thursday Foot-washing Rite
In January of this year, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments announced that the rubrics for the foot-washing rite in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper have been altered. Whereas the description of the rite given in the Roman Missal formerly stated, “The men who have been chosen are led to the minister…” (Mass of the Lord’s Supper, 11), this text has now been changed to read, “Those who are chosen from amongst the people of God are led by the ministers….”
The Congregation explained that the modification of this rubric, made at the request of Pope Francis, permits pastors to select a small group of the faithful who represent the variety and unity of each part of the people of God to participate in the foot-washing rite. This small group “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 performing this rite, priests are invited to intimately conform themselves to Christ, who “came not to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:28).
In a commentary accompanying this decree, Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary of the Congregation, noted that this ritual act has taken many forms over the centuries. The Holy Thursday foot-washing is first mentioned in a 7th-century Roman ordo, in which the bishop is described as washing the feet of twelve clerics in his house on Holy Thursday. This rite was carried out in various ways in monastic houses and parishes throughout the medieval era. The post-Tridentine Caeremoniale Episcoporum (1600) describes a related custom, wherein the bishop would wash, dry, and kiss the feet of thirteen poor people after dressing, feeding, and giving a charitable donation to them. This action was performed outside of the celebration of the liturgy, in the afternoon or evening of Holy Thursday.
In 1955, Pope Pius XII moved the foot-washing rite to within the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, where it was placed after the homily. This optional rite involved washing and drying of the feet of “twelve selected men.” The 1970 Missale Romanum retained this practice, but omitted the indication that those to have their feet washed must number twelve. The most recent rubrical change announced by the Congregation permits pastors to choose not only men but individuals from amongst all the members of the People of God to partake in the foot-washing rite.
Archbishop Roche noted that the historical development of this rite indicates its movement from a purely imitative act (wherein a bishop and twelve clerics represent Christ and the apostles), to one which symbolically expresses the meaning of Christ’s actions on Holy Thursday: namely, that in giving Himself for the salvation of the human race, Christ calls all to follow His example of loving service to others. In this way, the rite stands as a visual expression of the command of Christ to “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 3:14).
It should be noted that the number of persons to be selected for the foot-washing rite continues to be left to the pastor’s discretion. As well, this rite remains optional within the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and may be performed where pastoral reasons suggest its suitability.