So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards faith (1 Tim. 6:21-22).

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Looking ahead to the washing of the feet.

The foot washing is a very specific gesture that Jesus performed on the Apostles, i.e., priests of God, in order to help them understand how to exercise the authority given them by their Master.

Saint John's Gospel, to the untrained eye (which is to say, mine...), includes an account of the Institution of the Holy Eucharist complementary to the synoptics, i.e., the Gospel according to Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke. In his marvellous book Eucharist and Covenant in John's Last Supper Account (Jn 12:44-17:26), published by New Hope Publications, Monsignor Anthony A. La Femina, S.T.L., J.C.D., provides a thorough analysis and compelling answer as to why Saint John apparently left out Christ's Institution of the Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders (*see the footnote at the end of this article). Saint John focusses on the foot washing event because, presumably, 1) the Synoptics amply covered the Institution of the Eucharist, and 2) John, being the last Apostle, assumed his audience was informed enough and could benefit from additional emphasis on details that would help them better understand the nature of the priesthood. His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke provides a summary of Monsignor La Femina's profound insight:
Monsignor La Femina's canonical eye, which is, by nature, always a fundamentally and deeply theological eye, has uncovered in John the Evangelist's account of the Last Supper, a thorough and rich presentation of the Holy Eucharist as the complete fulfillment of the covenant which God first made with man at Mount Sinai and to which He has remained enduringly faithful in a manner beyond all of man's comprehension. Through his careful and thorough analysis of the juridical structure of the covenant, employing the best research of scholars of the Bible and of the Ancient Near East, Monsignor La Femina uncovers in Saint John's Last Supper account all the elements of the reality which is alone made present by the Eucharistic Sacrifice. 
His juridical eye, in a particular way, has helped him to see how Saint John, through the analogy between the Washing of the Feet and the Eucharistic Sacrifice, expressed the deepest truth of the Mystery of Faith, the immeasurable and unceasing love of God for man, in which man is called to participate, in which man is called to live. The analogical relationship between the Washing of the Feet and the Institution of the Holy Eucharist means that one is not understood without the other, that the deepest meaning of one cannot be plumbed without plumbing the deepest meaning of the other.
If the Washing of the Feet is intimately connected to the Institution of the Holy Eucharist, then the Washing of the Feet is also intimately connected with the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The latter seems self evident given Jesus' inclusion of men only, i.e., the Apostles, in the ritual.

The Lord's Supper event presents three distinct, but not separate, actions that are substantially related:
1) the Washing of the Feet, 
2) the Institution of the Eucharist and 
3) the Institution of Holy Orders.
When clergy wash the feet of females, children and non-Catholics, the action demonstrates a shift in focus from the intimate connection between the aforementioned three events to other foci that are not as theologically tenable nor desirable as the practice of washing the feet of (baptized Catholic) men that effects the appropriate iconography for the liturgy of Holy Thursday.

Does washing the feet of women, children and non-Catholics constitute a serious wound?

The element of selfless service which all followers of Christ should practice, and which many advocates of an "inclusive" ritual choose to focus on in order to concentrate people's attention on Christ's new commandment ("Love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you."), sometimes with a regrettable anti-Catholic agenda in mind (e.g., women's "ordination", or a misplaced emphasis on the priesthood of all believers to the detriment of Holy Orders), is still a valid aspect of the Gospel upon which to focus during the rite. However, the act of washing the feet of men provides the necessary opportunity for a deeper insight to be gained into the profound connection and unity between the actions mentioned, actions (sacraments) established by Christ Himself. The washing of men's feet preserves the iconography of the event, for one.

In an era when the sacrament of Holy Orders and vocations to the religious life have been severely marginalized, it seems prudent to celebrate the washing of feet as an occasion to strengthen our understanding of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.

Why, then, should we avoid departing from the age-old practice? It might be helpful to reflect on the obvious:
  • If women's feet are being washed, does that mean women should be considered for ordination? No. The Gospel narrative provides the necessary clarification that the ritual was performed only upon the Apostles. Bear in mind, too, that the action by which men are ordained has always been the laying on of hands on the head, not the washing of one's feet. The washing is a reminder, and indeed an important one, of the orientation of priests to the service of God and the Church, of a dying to self begun in the Sacrament of Baptism.
  • The feet washing ritual, if it includes females, can be a reminder of baptism and the call to all Christians into service as missioners of the Gospel. That call may be better issued, for example, in the context of a homily rather than through a ritual intimately linked to the institution of Holy Orders.
  • Should the washing of the feet of ordained men be celebrated less often and only during the Holy Thursday liturgy? Yes, probably. In many dioceses, Holy Thursday includes the blessing of Holy Oils (a Chrism Mass), a time when, ideally, all the priests of a diocese gather around their bishop as a sign of unity and their orientation to an apostle from whom their authority is derived. That liturgy is the perfect time and place to enact the washing of the feet of priests (only), since many priests will be present. Of course, the Liturgy would be longer, given the addition of rituals, but not by much. The connection between the three actions of Holy Thursday would, then, be better preserved than if the feet washing ritual is used to merely affirm how marvellous one's diocese or parish is at promoting social justice. Jesus put things into perspective when he said we will always have the poor with us. We can and should serve the poor, but when Christ is with us during the Mass, we are responding to Him. Let's give Him our full attention.
Christ is present in the poor, often in distressing disguise, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has said. In the Holy Eucharist we have Christ present, and we should kneel in adoration (i.e., make ourselves poor) before the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Our actions should focus on the person and action of Christ in our midst.
  • Any departure from the traditional practice entails the risk of unjustifiable license being taken, license which culminates in abuse. While it is laudable to emphasize the idea of service to one's brother's and sisters, in a day and age when, for example, cats and dogs are understood by some to be persons the same as humans, subjecting the ritual washing of feet to any and every distorted view will likely result in an abuse and a mockery of Christ's action. Surely we do not need to give those who hate the Church any additional opportunity to attack that which is holy.
* The institution of Holy Orders occurred at the moment Christ, referring to the consecration of the bread and wine which became at His words His Body and Blood, said "DO THIS in memory of me." The words DO THIS, of course, refers to the action Christ Himself is performing. Ipso facto, it takes a priest to "DO THIS", i.e., to do what Christ did and does at every Mass. By virtue of his ordination, the priest is made alter christus, "another Christ", through whom Christ the Lord consecrates (blesses, forgive sins...).


  1. I have an awful feeling I know what is coming at the Holy Thursday Mass at our cathedral this year. I'd just as soon see the entire foot-washing practice done away with: it can't be combined with the Chrism Mass in our diocese, and it is prone to abuse and misunderstanding in our current situation. Paradoxically, a ritual meant in part to illustrate the humility of service has become an opportunity for showboating clerics to illustrate their own (soi disant) "enlightenment".

    Actually, I'm dreading the entire Triduum, for the first time since becoming Catholic. I may celebrate the Vigil with our Ordinariate brethren (or in Latin if available), but we otherwise have to be at the Cathedral.

  2. Murray, you hit the nail on the head with regards to the inversion of the orientation of the ritual. I appreciate your candour.

    The road to "best liturgy", not merely better liturgy, is one that invites a sustained and gentle prodding of priests and people toward the authentic. Unfortunately, the prospect of orienting the foot washing ritual to the men-only ideal is made more difficult when certain high profile liturgies, i.e., liturgies to which priests and people often look for guidance regarding practice, depart from the example given by the Lord. Come what may, we must continue to engage, educate and affirm the Tradition of the Church.

    Your mention of the Ordinariate is an understandable and laudable suggestion.


"A multitude of wise men is the salvation of the world(.)—Wisdom 6:24. Readers are welcome to make rational and responsible comments. Any comment that 1) offends human dignity and/or 2) which constitutes an irrational attack on the Catholic Faith will not go unchallenged. If deemed completely stupid, such a comment will most assuredly not see the light of day. Them's the rules. Don't like 'em? Move on.

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