Like all good symbols and symbolic actions, the washing of the feet (also called mandatum) on Holy Thursday holds many layers of significance for Christians. The mandatum ritualizes Christ’s action on the night before he died when he showed his disciples an example of how they are to love one another in imitation of his love for them. Thus, “the principal and traditional meaning of the Holy Thursday mandatum…is the biblical injunction of Christian charity: Christ’s disciples are to love one another” (#3, statement from the United States Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, 1987; see this statement for a fuller explanation of the significance of this ritual and the Bishops’ response to the inclusion of women). This commandment (English translation of mandatum) to love one another as Christ has loved us is given to all the baptized, those who are Christ’s disciples today.
The priest who presides at the Holy Thursday Mass should be the primary example for the Christian community of Jesus’ self-giving and humbling act of love for his friends. That is why he is called to lead the washing of the feet. It is also why this ritual reflects not only the command given to all the faithful to love as Christ loved but also the command to complete and total service that is given to all those in ordained ministry as an imitation of Christ’s life of service, even to the point of death.
From this context then, we can look at some questions about this ritual.
Can both men and women participate in the washing of the feet?
Although the rubric in the Roman Missal refers only to men (#11 in the section on the Mass of the Lord’s Supper), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as indicated in their liturgy committee’s statement cited above (and even Pope Francis by his own example) emphasize the significance of “the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world” (#4, statement). Therefore, the variation and custom of having both men and women participate in the washing of the feet “is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, ‘who came to serve and not to be served,’ that all members of the Church must serve one another in love” (#5, statement). Thus, both men and women, including children, may have their feet washed as well as participate by washing another’s feet.
What is the presider’s role in the washing of the feet?
The priest celebrant, as much as he is able to, should wash the feet of at least several persons as an example to the assembly of Christian love and service and to connect his unique example of service to his role as presider over the Eucharist. This helps to unite the proclamation of the Gospel, the washing of the feet, and the Eucharist. The Gospel we proclaim, and our ritual participation in that Gospel through the mandatum, shows us the kind of love and service that is required of all who share in the Eucharist (see the final note below).
Does there have to be 12 persons selected to have their feet washed?
Nowhere in any of the rubrics does it indicate that 12 persons are to be chosen for this ritual. Although the washing of the feet imitates Jesus’ act of love for his disciples on the night before he died, it is not a re-enactment of that moment of Jesus’ life. It is a ritual that signifies our participation in Christ’s mission of love and service to one another and to those in need in our world today. (For this reason, costumes or any kind of play-acting of the foot-washing scene of the Last Supper in place of the ritual washing of feet is not permitted.) Those coordinating the liturgy should prepare at least several specific persons in advance to participate in the foot-washing but should not try to match the number of people participating in the rite to the historical number of disciples.
Some people are uncomfortable having their feet washed. Can they have their hands washed instead?
In light of the humbling service signified by washing of another’s feet and its biblical connection to Jesus’ action at the Last Supper, a variation of this rite that includes washing of hands does not make sense. If anything, washing hands seems to connect more to Pilate’s act of power and indifference when he washed his hands of condemning Jesus to death (Mt 27:24), than to Jesus’ own act of service and love when he stooped down to wash his disciples’ feet. Washing hands should not be given as an option during this rite.
If there are concelebrants, should they also participate in the washing of the feet?
The rubrics found in the Roman Missal indicate that the priest who presides at the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper is helped by other ministers. Concelebrants should assist as needed by the number of persons who will have their feet washed.
Is it required to have your feet washed?
No one is required to participate in the ritual. The entire ritual itself is optional (see #10 in the Roman Missal), although it is customary in the United States to include it.
How do you keep the assembly engaged during the entire ritual, especially if many people will be participating in it?
Here are some best practices that will help keep the assembly engaged and participating in the ritual and will help keep the ritual moving, especially if your practice is to include a large number of persons in the ritual:
- Have multiple stations throughout the entire church; put multiple stations along the length of the aisles and at the back of the church as well. The more stations you have, the quicker the ritual will go and the more people will be able to see up close what is happening.
- Ask people to remove their shoes and socks before they go to the station where they will have their feet washed; ask them to go to the nearest station; ask them to put their shoes and socks back on after they have returned to their seats in the assembly.
- If you will be inviting participants to have their feet washed and to wash another’s feet as well, have a trained person who remains at each station to assist each person.
- Coordinate how chairs, basins, water pitchers, and fresh towels will be placed at the stations and replenished quickly during the ritual.
- Choose music that can be sung “by heart” without needing to hold a songbook or worship aid.
What difference does this ritual make?
None, if we don’t put into practice in our daily lives what the ritual signifies in the liturgy: “[T]he faithful should be instructed on the profound meaning of this sacred rite and should be taught that it is only proper that they should abound in works of Christian charity on this day” (Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction on the Correct Use of the Restored Ordo of Holy Week, November 16, 1955, Washington, DC: National Catholic Welfare Conference Publications Office, 1955, page 6; see #2, statement).
On this day, when we celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the supper narrative according to John’s Gospel in which there are no details about the meal eaten but only the example of love and service given. John’s Gospel account shows us that the command to love as Christ loved is the same command we say “Amen” to every time we eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ. Our rituals, whether washing feet or sharing in Communion, will be authentic only to the extent that we show our love for one another and for those most in need throughout our day-to-day lives.
As soon-to-be Saint John Paul II said in his final letter on the Eucharist, “We cannot delude ourselves: by our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ (cf. Jn 13:35; Mt 25:31-46). This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, #28).
By Diana Macalintal; image: Ford Madox Brown, 1856, detail, public domain