On his very first Holy Thursday as Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis famously (and to some criticism and some cheers) washed the feet of both men and women, even including non-Catholics as participants in a most moving and meaningful tradition within the Triduum.
He has repeated that action each year, and now he has made the inclusion of women and girls an official part of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.
The decree was prepared and signed by Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and released with an accompanying letter from His Holiness, in which the pope writes that he has long-reflected on the “rite of the washing of the feet contained in the Liturgy of the Mass in Coena Domini, with the intention of improving the way in which it is performed so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus’ gesture in the Cenacle, his giving of himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, his limitless charity”.
“After careful consideration, I have decided to make a change to the Roman Missal. I therefore decree that the section according to which those persons chosen for the Washing of the feet must be men or boys, so that from now on the Pastors of the Church may choose the participants in the rite from among all the members of the People of God. I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen.”
The order has gone out, and instructions in the Roman Missal for Holy Thursday will be changed immediately, and applicable to this year’s ceremonies, on March 24.
The reform of the Holy Week, by the decree Maxima Redemptionis nostrae mysteria of November 1955, provides the faculty, where counseled by pastoral motives, to perform the washing of the feet of 12 men during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, after the reading of the Gospel according to John, as if almost to represent Christ’s humility and love for His disciples.
In the Roman liturgy this rite was handed down with the name of the Mandatum of the Lord on brotherly charity in accordance with Jesus’ words, sung in the Antiphon during the celebration.
In performing this rite, bishops and priests are invited to conform intimately to Christ who “came not to be served but to serve” and, driven by a love “to the end,” to give his life for the salvation of all humankind.
To manifest the full meaning of the rite to those who participate in it, the Holy Father Francis has seen fit to change the rule by in the Roman Missal (p. 300, No. 11) according to which the chosen men are accompanied by the ministers, which must therefore be modified as follows: “Those chosen from among the People of God are accompanied by the ministers (and consequently in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum No. 301 and No. 299 b referring to the seats for the chosen men), so that pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God. This group may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople.
“This Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, by means of the faculties granted by the Supreme Pontiff, introduces this innovation in the liturgical books of the Roman Rite, recalling pastors of their duty to instruct adequately both the chosen faithful and others, so that they may participate in the rite consciously, actively and fruitfully.”
To the contrary notwithstanding.
From the offices of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the sixth day of the month of January in the year 2016, on the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.
Robert Card. Sarah
In many parishes, the decree will simply be received as an endorsement of their current practices. The move is sure to be controversial as more traditionally-minded Catholics are expected to object to the inclusion, while other Catholics might be tempted to wonder whether this action in any way signals a “softening” of the Church’s teachings on female ordination.
That is unlikely, as the pope has several times criticized the question as a form of clericalism and has said clearly, “that door is closed.” This move is certainly in keeping, however, with his stated wish to see more women visibly included where it is possible in liturgy and administration.