Pope Francis extends the Foot Washing to Women


21 January 2016 | by Christopher Lamb in Rome | ‘The TABLET’

Pope Francis washes his feet of traditional liturgists

“You will never wash my feet,” a shocked Simon Peter said when he saw Jesus with a basin of water and a robe. Even today the imitation of one of the most powerfully symbolic moments in Christ’s life has the power to scandalise.

Pope Francis has now asked that the foot-washing ceremony, which takes place during the Mass of the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, can include women (a decree from the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments was issued today to that effect).



There will, however, be many liturgical traditionalists left unhappy by this move. They were pretty outraged in 2013 when, soon after his election, Francis washed the feet of two women prisoners, including one Muslim during the Holy Thursday liturgy.

As Christ only washed the feet of his male disciples they argue the ceremony should copy that. The rubrics of Pope Pius XII, issued 1955, also state that only males should have their feet washed by priests. Now the Pope has widened participation to all “the People of God.” But what is the real reason traditionalists are unhappy?

Fr Paul Gunter OSB, secretary of the Department for Christian Life and Worship, told The Tablet in 2013 that: “Jesus performed the Washing of the Feet when he gave his mandatum to the 12 Apostles. Since the occasion was intrinsically attached to the institution of the priesthood, the gesture was not incomplete because of its not being extended to women.”

By extending the ceremony to women Francis is seen as allowing women to participate in Christ’s priesthood. In truth, the Vatican ruling is unlikely to have a major impact on parishes because many of them have been washing the feet of women for years. And when he was in Argentina Pope Francis regularly had female participants in his Holy Thursday liturgy. 

What the Holy See has done is rubber stamp current practice. It also continues a trend in this papacy of upsetting traditionalists – those who like things done the way they always have. 

But he doesn’t seem to mind. During his daily homily on Tuesday the Pope said “Christians who obstinately maintain ‘it’s always been done this way,’…they sin” adding: “the Christian who is obstinate sins!” 


One wondered how long it might take for Pope Francis to overturn the traditional embargo on including women in the traditional Foot-Washing ceremony, which normally takes place as part of the Holy Thursday penitential rite in the Liturgy. He actually broke tradition by being the first Roman Pontiff to include a woman – who was also a Muslim – among those prisoners whose feet he washed in the traditional Holy Week ceremonies in a Roman prison. He has now officially opened the way for the extension of this practice in the Roman Catholic Church world-wide.

This is one good thing about the power of the papal rule of his Roman Catholic subjects; there are times when, by example, a reigning pope can open up the locked doors of extant tradition to do something new and altogether pastoral for a class of people – in this case, the women of the Church – that hitherto has been undervalued and overlooked by the male culture of patriarchy in Church government. This Pope will not necessarily be held back from initiating what he sees as justice initiatives towards the marginalised.

Pope Francis seems destined to upset the equilibrium of more than the sexist culture of the Roman Catholic Church. His utterances on homosexuality and the need to purge the Church of endemic homophobia have given hope to many Christians outside of the Roman Catholic Church, whose efforts to obtain justice for LGBTI people around the world have ruffled the feathers of many an Anglican Primate – especially the Primate of Uganda, whose walkout from the Anglican Primates’ meeting in Canterbury recently was hardly noticed – except by those who know of the A.C. of Uganda’s collusion with the Ugandan government to criminalize and persecute Gay people in that country.

For Christian leadership, Pope Francis has already marked out a path of pastoral and liturgical reform. His embrace of the liberating ethos of Vatican II (initiated by Pope John XXIII, but then toned down by succeeding pontiffs) has caused not a little distress for those in the Catholic Church who are keen to maintain the conservative line on many of the issues facing the Church in today’s world. The matter of allowing divorced people access to reception of the elements at the Eucharist is only one of a series of reforms that will mark out this papacy, where pastoral accommodation needs to be made for a new environment, in which people need to know the love and generosity of the God we serve.

Today’s Gospel reading (Luke 4:14-21) shows Jesus reading the liberating text of the Prophet Isaiah, which speaks of being anointed by the Holy Spirit for the exlicit purpose of bringing ‘Good News’ to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives;  and recovery of sight to the blind – all of which Jesus accepted as the ministry which he and his followers were called upon to undertake. This Pope seems to be set on doing just that! May his example of loving service of others in the Name of Christ be taken on board by our Anglican Primates!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, new Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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