Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday

And More on Days of Abstinence

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ROME, MARCH 28, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.



Q: I understand that it is in fact liturgically incorrect to have the main celebrant at the Holy Thursday Mass wash the feet of women. Correct? -- J.C., Ballina, Ireland. During the Holy Thursday liturgy at our parish, there are a number of foot-washing stations set up around the Church, and the people in the pews get up and bring someone else to one of the stations and wash their feet. Most of the people in Church take part in this, washing feet and in turn having their feet washed. It takes quite a while. Is this liturgically correct? Are there any norms for foot-washing during the Holy Thursday Mass? -- B.S., Naperville, Illinois. On Holy Thursday, at the washing of feet, the people, mostly youth, after having their foot washed, preceded to wash the next person's foot. Then they placed four bowls of water and four places before the altar, and the congregation was told to come forward and have their hands washed by the same people who just had their foot washed. We didn't. Everything felt out of order. -- E.K., Freehold, New Jersey

A: We already addressed the theme of washing women's feet in our column of March 23, 2004, and the subsequent follow-up on April 6.

Since then, there has been no change in the universal norm which reserves this rite to men as stated in the circular letter "Paschales Solemnitatis" (Jan. 16, 1988) and the rubrics of the 2002 Latin Roman Missal.

No. 51 of the circular letter states: "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.' This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained."

About a year ago, however, the Holy See, while affirming that the men-only rule remains the norm, did permit a U.S. bishop to also wash women's feet if he considered it pastorally necessary in specific cases. This permission was for a particular case and from a strictly legal point of view has no value outside the diocese in question.

I believe that the best option, as "Paschales Solemnitatis" states, is to maintain the tradition and explain its proper significance.

This means preparing the rite following liturgical law to the letter, 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.

Regarding the place and number of those whose feet are to be washed, the rubric, which has remained unvaried in the new missal, describes the rite as follows:

"Depending on pastoral circumstances, the washing of feet may follow the homily.

"The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers he pours water over each one's feet and dries them."

The number of men selected for the rite is not fixed. Twelve is the most common option but they may be fewer in order to adjust to the available space.

Likewise the place chosen is usually within or near the presbytery so that the rite is clearly visible to the assembly.

Thus, the logical sense of the rubric requires the priest, representing Christ, washing feet of a group of men taken from the assembly, symbolizing the apostles, in a clearly visible area.

The variations described above -- of washing the feet of the entire congregation, of people washing each other's feet (or hands), or doing so in situations that are not visible to all -- tend to undermine the sense of this rite within the concrete context of the Mass of the Lord's Supper.

Such practices, by greatly extending the time required, tend to convert a meaningful, but optional, rite into the focal point of the celebration. And that detracts attention from the commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, the principal motive of the celebration.

In other circumstances, such as retreats or so called para-liturgical services, it can be perfectly legitimate to perform foot-washing rites inspired by Christ's example and by the liturgy. In such cases none of the limitations imposed by the concrete liturgical context of the Holy Thursday Mass need apply.

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Follow-up: Why No Chicken on Days of Abstinence

Several readers asked for further clarifications on some aspects of the laws of fast and abstinence (see our March 14 column).

Some inquired as to the use of derivatives such as chicken broth and the use of beef and chicken stock and animal fats in preparing foods.

Present canon law allows the use of sauces made from animal fats, as well as their use in cooking, so the use of beef or chicken stock would enter into this category.

While the use of chicken consommé (that is just the liquid) might fall within the law, it would be more in accordance with the spirit of abstinence to prefer a fish or vegetable soup.

Other readers pointed out occasional incongruities such as when fish is more expensive than meat.

The purpose of the law of abstinence is to educate us in the higher spiritual law of charity and self-mastery. Thus, fast and abstinence have always been tied to almsgiving.

In this way, it makes little sense to give up steak so as to gorge on lobster and caviar. The idea of abstinence is to prefer a simpler, less sumptuous diet than normal.

We thus have something extra to give to those less fortunate than ourselves and also train ourselves in freedom from slavery to material pleasures. Even a Catholic vegetarian can practice abstinence by substituting a typical, yet more expensive, element of the diet for something simpler.

All the same, the laws of fasting exist to give clear directions and preserve us from subjective indulgence in choosing our "sacrifices." But these laws have always been tempered by the reality of the situation.

For this reason the Church has continually granted indults so that nobody be involuntarily deprived of necessary foods. In some cases this has meant suspending abstinence on some days or for some categories of people; in others it has meant permitting meat when fish is an expensive delicacy or when eating meat is itself a rarity. In other cases it has meant substituting another kind of food for meat.

In all of these cases the basic rule of thumb is that the law of fast and abstinence should never impose a grave or unsupportable burden on an individual or family.

These indults are still very pertinent in poor countries where the basic diet varies little and consists of a few basic commodities such as rice, beans, corn or potatoes accompanied by small quantities of meat and other vegetables.

In the developed world the vast array of assorted foodstuffs available at the local supermarket make living the laws of abstinence relatively easy. In most cases one can forgo meat and still maintain a simple yet well balanced diet.

However, while being faithful to these laws we must always strive to penetrate the inner reasons for fast and abstinence and not just stay on the superficial plane of rules for rules' sake.

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