Dr. Edward Peters 

To work for the proper implementation of canon law is to play an extraordinarily

constructive role in continuing the redemptive mission of Christ. Pope John Paul II







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6 apr 2013

Toward resolving the annual Mandatum rite controversies



This essay originally appeared March 2006.


Holy Week is almost upon us, and that means that, while we try to prepare for the awesome mysteries of the Triduum, we’ll also have to endure the annual Lenten foot fight: You know, “Is it okay for Father to wash the feet of women on Holy Thursday?”


John XIII: 12-15: When he had washed their feet, and taking his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (RSV)



Additum (6 apr 2013): Grüße zu deutschen Lesern! Tut mir leid. Ich kann nicht gutes Deutsch schreiben, aber ich habe auf diesen Artikel auf Englisch hier geantwortet. Herzlich, Dr. Peters.

The foot-washing rite, called the Mandatum (command), was re-introduced into the liturgy by Pope Pius XII in 1955. A recent circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship explains its purpose: “The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came ‘not to be served, but to serve’ (Matt XX: 28). This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.” CDW, Paschales Solemnitatis (16 ian 1988), n. 51.


Present liturgical law is clear that only adult males (viri) may have their feet washed at the Mass of the Last Supper: “Lotio pedum …11. Viri selecti deducuntur a ministris ad sedilia loco apto parata. Tunc sacerdos … accedit ad singulos, eisque fundit aquam super pedes et abstergit …” (Mass of the Lord's Supper, Roman Missal 2002). Therefore, if someone is washing the feet of any females (or, it seems, even of males under 18, per 1983 CIC 97), he is in violation of the Holy Thursday rubrics.


But there are two significant problems.


First, it is common knowledge that permissions have been granted to individual bishops to permit women to have their feet washed. Under canon law, such variations do not constitute a change in universal norms nor do they provide others a precedent upon which to adopt practices contrary to law (see 1983 CIC 16 § 3). Still, such exceptions inevitably make people wonder why something like this is illicit in one diocese yet permissible in another. Moreover, Rome’s practice of granting such permissions privately makes it difficult to know the level of authority involved in making the exception and to refute rumors that others were granted.


Second, the rubric provokes the bigger question of why the rite is restricted to adult men in the first place. Most commonly, it is argued that the rite represents Christ’s actions at the Last Supper and therefore it must be done as He did it.


Consider two liturgical experts, ambo resplendentes in scientia et fide: Rev. Edward McNamara: “This means preparing the rite following liturgical law to the letter, [and to] explain its meaning as an evocation of Christ's gesture of service and charity to his apostles, and avoid getting embroiled in controversies that try to attribute to the rite meanings it was never meant to have.” (Zenit, 28 March 2006) And Mr. Jimmy Akin: “Since the rite re-enacts Jesus' washing of the Twelve Apostles' feet (all of whom were men) and since the text for the rite in Latin refers to it being performed on viri selecti ("selected men") ... only men should be used." (Blog, 21 Mar 2005) and "This rubric requires twelve males because they are representing the Twelve Apostles whose feet Jesus washed." (Blog, 28 Feb 05).


There are problems with both of these explanations.


Besides the fact that the entire rite is optional and so need not be done at all, consider:

  • no specific number of men is required for the rite, so the connection asserted between 12 men and the 12 Apostles is at best ambiguous;

  • indeed, there are no references to “apostles” in the mandatum rubrics or the circular letter, which instead explain the rite in terms of “Christ’s gesture of service and charity”, a ministry obviously not limited to apostles; and,

  • Christ’s explicit mandate at the Last Supper was “you also should do as I have done to you”, a command no one reads as restricting the recipients of ordained ministry to apostles or their successors.

Thus, Fr. McNamara’s claim that the rite evokes “Christ's gesture of service and charity to his apostles” and Mr. Akin’s statement that the rite “requires twelve males because they are representing the Twelve Apostles” are eisegetical. Ironically, both men might still have a point, but one would have to look beyond what Rome has actually said to find it. In the meantime, we are left wondering, just what is the value served by restricting the rite to adult men?



Canon 208. From their rebirth in Christ, there exists among all the Christian faithful a true equality regarding dignity and action by which they all cooperate in the building up of the Body of Christ according to each one's own condition and function.

Earlier, I said there are two problems with the law at present. But really, there are three.


Bishops who are, quite correctly, upholding the law as it reads, know that this matter is purely one of ecclesiastical law (which means it is changeable, albeit only by Rome per 1983 CIC 838). They know that the reasons commonly offered in support of the law are either literally non-existent (as above) or are inconclusive. And they know that in some places this rubric is unnecessarily divisive. At a minimum, then it is hard to reconcile this liturgical restriction with the principle of fundamental equality of the faithful succinctly set forth in Canon 208 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.


But bishops know something else: they know that virtually every time a provision of liturgical (not divine) law has been challenged in recent decades (by people who love the Church, or otherwise) on such topics as Saturday Mass of anticipation, Communion in the hand, female altar servers, regular distribution of Precious Blood, lay service as extraordinary ministers—the list goes on and on—virtually every time, I say, that such restrictions have been challenged, Rome has changed the rule after a lot of hard feelings were generated in trying to defend it. And that is truly regrettable. Liturgical law should protect and enhance the essentials and beauty of divine worship; it should not become a proving ground of episcopal willingness to enforce Roman decrees.


Personally, it makes no difference to me which way the Legislator decides to go here; if he wants to emphasize the symbolism of apostolic presence at the Last Supper and therefore restrict those getting their feet washed to adult men, fine. If he wants to emphasize the symbolism of Christ’s love for all his disciples and therefore authorize women having their feet washed, fine. But I think we need to have a clear ruling, one way or the other, once and for all. It would also help to have an articulation of pastorally convincing reasons to back up the choice (though such reasons need not be "convincing" to everyone in order for the law to be binding.)


Finally, we really need to stop having this debate only during Lent; it’s too late to do anything about it by this time of the year. This question should be studied, and answered, during the coming year. There are many more important things to ponder during the Church's holiest season.


A suggestion

The Washing of the Feet is a time-consuming rite that breaks up the flow of the liturgy, is difficult to see from any place besides the front few pews, and leaves the congregation with nothing to do for a prolonged period. Why not, then, move it from Holy Thursday in parishes to the Chrism Mass, a special Mass that bishops and priests typically celebrated some days or weeks before Holy Week, and have the bishop wash the feet of 12 of his priests? The symbolism of the rite would be much stronger, and all controversies instantly resolved.