Holy Thursday Washing of Feet. In 1955 Pope Pius XII added the optional ritual of the priest washing the feet of 12 men to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening. This ritual imitated the action of Jesus at the Last Supper, as he washed the feet of his 12 apostles, and signified both the Lord’s universal commandment to love one another as He has loved us, and also His specific instruction to the apostles to place this commandment at the center of their priestly ministry standing in persona Christi. This second meaning took on particular significance at this Mass which also commemorated the institution of the priesthood by Christ at the Last Supper. The ritual became known as the “Mandatum” (“Commandment”).
In the revision of the Roman Missal in 1970 this optional Mandatum was retained, as was its dual meaning (although the requirement of “12” was omitted). At St. Raymond’s we have kept this custom by washing the feet of 12 altar boys, reinforcing the connection of the meaning of priestly service (with strong vocational overtones for the boys).
On January 6 of this year, however, Pope Francis changed the rule requiring that the Mandatum include only men. As he wrote: “pastors may select a small group of the faithful…Such small groups can be made up of men and women…” In instituting this change the pope has indicated his intention to change the meaning of the ritual, de-emphasizing the connection to the priesthood and emphasizing primarily the universal commandment of charity.
Unfortunately, this presents certain practical problems for parishes. For example, can we continue to wash only the feet of altar boys? The Pope’s decree seems to indicate I may choose whomever I see fit (“pastors may select”). But an official Vatican commentary seems to greatly limit this discretion: “It is for pastors to choose a small group of persons who are representative of the entire people of God – lay, ordained ministers, married, single, religious, healthy, sick, children, young people and the elderly – and not just one category or condition.” This language has been interpreted by many, including Bishop Loverde, to mean that the people chosen for the Mandatum must include females (i.e., not just altar boys).
It also presents a second practical problem for a parish like ours, with a such a wide diversity of people: males, females, babies, toddlers, teens, young adults, middle-aged, seniors, marrieds, parents, singles, sick, and healthy…and scores of various ethnic groups. How do I choose “a small group of persons who are representative of the entire” parish and of every “category or condition”? And who’s going to deal with the complaints when I leave out someone’s group or subgroup?
A third practical problem is a little more delicate to explain. The idea of a man washing a woman’s feet would seem to potentially conflict with the virtues of modesty and chastity. At least this is what I understand from the writings of the great Catholic moral and spiritual scholars, and from my experience as a confessor, pastor and a male. While this may seem quaint, outdated or prudish to some today, I’m afraid it is often the case that men are “distracted” by the female body.
So, after prayerfully considering this decree and these and other practical problems, and discussing them with other pastors and parishioners, I have decided to exercise my option and omit the Mandatum from this year’s Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper: we will not wash any feet at the Mass. This is not a decision I make lightly: I have always deeply appreciated the Mandatum. And I do not at all challenge the Holy Father’s decision, but I am confused how this new rule can and should be practically applied in our parish. Perhaps with time all this will be clarified and these problems may be resolved.
I’m sorry if this disappoints you, for whatever reason. It disappoints me too. But please, let’s not get all upset or distracted by its absence, but rather refocus on the essentials of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, especially the ultimate act of loving service of the great High Priest, Jesus Christ, as He gives us His Crucified Body in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Passiontide. Today we enter into “Passiontide,” the last two weeks of Lent, when we more intently and somberly focus our attention Christ’s Passion. We try, in effect, to take ourselves 2000 years back in time and walk with Jesus in those last days before Good Friday. We mark this in a very dramatic way by covering the statues and crucifixes in our churches: Good Friday has not yet happened, so there is no cross yet; Easter has not happened, so no saints are in heaven. Keep this in mind in the coming days: “I’m walking with Jesus, and Peter and the apostles…With Judas. With John, and Mary Magdalene… And with the Blessed Mother….”
In this spirit, I strongly encourage all of you to go to confession this week (especially if you haven’t been yet in Lent), and to one or more weekday Masses and to spend time in Adoration of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Also, please pray the Stations of the Cross, either privately or on Friday evening at 6:30 in the church with other parishioners led by a priest.
Holy Week. Next Sunday, March 20, is the beginning of Holy Week. Please plan ahead today to take part in the special and unique liturgies of these most solemn and sacred days of the Christian year.
These begin with the Masses of next Sunday, Palm/Passion Sunday, especially the 8:45 Mass with the Solemn Procession with Palms at the beginning. Please join us in the Parish Hall before 8:45 from whence, after the opening rites, we will process outside, and enter the church from the front. (This takes about 10 minutes). If you attend the 8:45 Mass you may also simply take your seats in the church before Mass as usual and listen over the speakers in the church to everything said/sung in the Parish Hall.
As the week goes on the special liturgies continue with Holy Thursday’s evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, followed by the solemn procession and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament until midnight— “can you not watch one hour with me?” Then there’s Good Friday’s Celebration of the Passion of the Lord, with the Veneration of the Cross and Holy Communion, which begins at 3pm—the hour of the Lord’s death. And finally, the Easter Vigil at the end of Holy Saturday evening.
As your spiritual father I beg you to try to participate in all of these liturgies, that are so important to experiencing the fullness of Catholic prayer in Holy Week. I especially recommend that you attend the 3pm Good Friday Veneration of the Cross. Some say, “but it’s a work day!” But I say: “it’s the hour of the Lord’s death! The most sacred hour in all time! Why would any Catholic want to be at work?”
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles