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In The Rite Of The Washing Of The Feet… Cardinal Sarah Gives Scope To Celebrant Priest Whether Or Not To Include Women

March 15, 2016 Frontpage No Comments


A letter from Pope Francis to Robert Cardinal Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was published January 21, 2016, (, in which Pope Francis decreed that, at the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet (in the Ordinary Latin Rite) on Holy Thursday, the priest may wash the feet not only of men, but also of women.
On January 21, Edward Pentin gave a thorough overview of these proposed and permitted changes in the National Catholic Register (, to include the further explanations and instructions as published by the office of Cardinal Sarah himself.
In the wake of this general papal decree, some local bishops have further ordained that their own local priests are now obliged to follow this new rule, instead of leaving the decision up the celebrant himself. (The names of these local bishops are explicitly kept private here in order to protect the respective priests from reprisals.) These bishops now say that their priests should involve women in the ceremony of the washing of the feet.
This development has put those priests under moral pressure who are unwilling to wash the feet of married or unmarried women, due to their informed faith and their own priestly sense of modesty and chastity. For example, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, of Astana, Kazakhstan, has expressed his objections against this decision in February of 2016 (
Schneider made a clear statement about this matter, as follows:
“As concretely to the innovation of washing the feet of women during the Holy Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday: This Holy Mass celebrates the commemoration of the institution of the Sacraments of the Eucharist and [of] the Priesthood. Therefore, the foot washing of women along with the men not only distracts from the main focus on Eucharist and on Priesthood, but generates confusion regarding the historical symbolism of the ‘twelve’ and of the apostles being of [the] male sex….
“By the way: The public washing and usually also kissing of the feet of women on the part of a man, in our case, of a priest or a bishop, is considered by every person of common sense in all cultures as being improper and even indecent. Thanks be to God, no priest or bishop is obliged to wash publicly the feet of women on Holy Thursday, for there is no binding norm for it, and the foot washing itself is only facultative.”
After a couple of priests contacted me and asked me to help them receive an authoritative clarification from Robert Cardinal Sarah himself, so that they might be assured of their own spiritual freedom to decide for themselves to include only men into the rite of the Washing of the Feet, I asked Vatican correspondent Edward Pentin for help in this matter.
Pentin, together with Aleteia Rome correspondent Diane Montagna, was able to speak with Cardinal Sarah who made a statement to Pentin according to which it is up to the individual celebrant to decide whom he invites to participate in the washing of the feet in the liturgy of Holy Thursday. As Pentin put it in an e-mail to me: “He [Cardinal Sarah] simply said that each bishop and priest ‘has to decide in accord with his own conscience, and according to the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast.’ So in other words, by no means does a priest have to wash the feet of women.”
I consider this clarification to be important and intend to make it known to as many priests as possible. I know that others are trying to receive a more official statement from Cardinal Sarah, but due to the lack of time, I decided to get this information out into the public.
In order to receive wholehearted and candid statements from priests as to their own assessment of this issue, I contacted priests in the U.S. and abroad. Since some of the answers are so full of insight and worthy of our contemplation and further discussion, my husband recommended that I publish each of them in full. In the following I therefore publish these statements without my further comments.
It is worth noting that, with the one exception of the courageous and outspoken founder of Ignatius Press, Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ — who is always so generous with his conscientious advice and forthright interviews — the priests have all preferred to remain anonymous out of a fear of reprisals. These priests themselves come from different rites of the Catholic Church: the Eastern Byzantine Rite, the Novus Ordo Rite, as well as from the Traditional Gregorian Latin Rite.
Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, Ignatius Press, California:
“Of course it should be made clear that this is a permission, not a requirement. But even that clarity won’t affect what actually happens. Here’s a similar situation in which we can already see the results. When permission was given for female altar servers, it was a permission given to bishops not directly to priests. I.e., if a bishop so chose, he could permit the practice in his diocese. It was clear in the decree that no priest was required to have female servers, even if the bishop had given the permission. How was this treated? Many bishops insisted that the regular use of altar girls be normative for all Masses.
“So, this new permission will be (and already has been) treated as a requirement.
“As to the substance: The rite of washing of feet is not required ever. As canon law now stands, duodecim viri (not duodecim homines) is specified. Of course, as supreme legislator, the Pope can (in theory) change the law any which way he desires. But the prototype is, of course, the Last Supper where Jesus washes the feet, not of His disciples, not of people chosen randomly from the crowds, but of the apostles, and tells them they should wash ‘one another’s feet.’ That is, ordained ministers should follow this example among themselves.
“Which is probably why, though the evidence for the rite in the early Church is very thin, we do know that in the 11th century the Pope washed the feet of subdeacons. Certainly from the time of Trent (16th century), until 1955, the rite was not part of the Mass.
“One thing is certain: There is a ‘symbolic dissonance’ or disconnect. The humility and service of which Jesus gives an example is something every Christian owes everyone. Nevertheless, the historical origin of the example is Jesus’ washing of the feet of His 12 apostles. Trying to make the gesture more ‘inclusive’ than Jesus Himself did simply muddles the historical image.
“Oh, and by the way, when will we see the first lawsuit where a woman claims the priest or bishop touched her seductively?”
A priest from Florida:
“Thank you for doing this. I, myself, am totally opposed to this pernicious and sacrilegious encroachment of unabashed modernism which this Bishop of Rome has performed since his first Holy Thursday — instead of washing, as Christ did Himself — the feet of elderly priests and bishops. I will never do this myself. Thanks to His Eminence Cardinal Sarah, but otherwise I would use the ‘option’ of not performing it at all. Deo gratias that mine is a Traditional parish. No one here would stand for this.”
A priest from Virginia:
“Anonymously, I think it’s a terrible interpretation. I also think it’s scandalous for a priest to be handling a married woman’s foot, much less an unmarried woman…we’re just going to skip it.”
A priest from the Eastern Rite:
“If it helps any, the Byzantine Tradition is that the washing of the feet is limited to patriarchs, bishops, and priests who, in their several orders represent Our Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles and special disciples — no laymen or women need apply.”
A priest from Italy:
“Feel free to write this as coming from Don Pietro Leone:
“The Mass of Maundy Thursday celebrates the institution of two sacraments: The Holy Priesthood and the Blessed Eucharist. The Holy Priesthood may be validly conferred solely on males, who alone may validly offer and confect the Blessed Eucharist. The 12 persons whose feet are washed in this Mass represent the 12 disciples whom Our Lord Jesus Christ ordained priests during the Last Supper. The Church has always prescribed that the ceremony should be performed with men in order to recall the foot-washing of the disciples.
“Permitting women to participate in this ceremony is inappropriate for the following reasons:
“1) It breaks with the Tradition that only men may participate in the liturgy. This derives from the beginnings of the Church and has its roots in the Jewish faith originating 4,000 years ago.
“2) More particularly, it breaks with the Tradition of the Mass of Maundy Thursday, which foresaw the foot-washing only of males.
“3) It no longer symbolizes the disciples present at the Last Supper.
“4) It no longer manifests the connection between those whose feet are washed and the two sacraments instituted during the Supper. In these ways it represents an attack on objective norms, particularly those of Tradition as enshrined in the liturgical rubrics, in favor of a spirit of creativity which is both subjectivist and lacking in depth and meaning. It generates confusion as to the sacramental order, especially in regard to the male priesthood.”
Another U.S. priest:
“For me, thanks be to God, the issue of washing women’s feet is relatively a non-issue. This problem, like most problems in the Novus Ordo, raises the more pertinent question: Why would anyone even celebrate it or assist at it, in the first place? As I would not celebrate this dubious rite, in which this dubious change in liturgical law is being inserted, I would certainly not compromise my priestly modesty even further by washing women’s feet. This novelty, which has no historical liturgical basis to it, and therefore is opposed to tradition, is clearly the latest instance of pushing the feminist agenda upon the Church.
“At some point, women will wake up and realize the attempt to androgenize the liturgy, and therefore the culture at large, is destructive of the ‘feminine genius’ and it is yet another assault on the fundamental basis upon which God created us: male and female. But because this change in liturgical law (reflecting yet another instance of the ‘errors of Russia’ infiltrating the Church) does visibly and dramatically affect the Church at large — especially in all male identities of those in the Apostolic College whose feet were actually washed by Christ — I am sadly affected by this decision.
“Yet, I have only the recourse of preaching against it, and penitential praying for the Church’s restoration beginning with its hierarchy knowing that the Church’s Mother herself will see to this restoration of Catholicism regardless of how long it takes us to heed her warnings.”
A priest from Italy:
“I think that what Cardinal Sarah has already said is very good. This is really an abomination, and it is yet another way to see the Church divided because everyone will do [things] according to his own conscience, be it Protestant or Catholic, two consciences paradoxically in the same Church. One wonders how long this can endure because, at the bottom of this liturgical abuse, is an erroneous view of the Church and her hierarchy.”

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