Are women permitted to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday?
Q: Are women permitted to have their feet washed on Holy Thursday? Someone told me that Cardinal Sean O’Malley claims to have a letter from Rome permitting the practice.
A: “Permitting” might be a strong word. The Archdiocese of Boston issued a statement (in the April 1, 2005 Archdiocesan paper, “The Pilot”) that read in part: “At the time of the ad limina visit to Rome, the archbishop sought clarification on the liturgical requirements of the rite of foot washing from the Congregation for Divine Worship, which has the responsibility for administering the liturgical law of the Church. The Congregation affirmed the liturgical requirement that only the feet of men be washed at the Holy Thursday ritual, which recalls Christ’s service to the apostles who would become the first priests of the Church. The Congregation did, however, provide for the archbishop to make a pastoral decision concerning his practice of the rite if such a decision would be helpful to the faithful of the archdiocese.”
And while Cardinal O’Malley did not comment publicly on the response from Rome, his practice since has been to include women in the Holy Thursday foot washing. The statement from Rome stops short of “permitting,” and issued no official indults. In the end it left the matter to the pastoral judgment of the Cardinal, and, presumably, all Ordinaries, while reiterating the norm of men only.
Sadly, the Holy Thursday foot washing has become a kind of countersign, emphasizing power and rivalry, instead of service and unity. What should bespeak charity has often issued in conflict. Though the norm has never been unclear, it must be admitted that the practice of including women today in the ritual is widespread. While priests today are generally more obedient to liturgical law, many have inherited the practice and, for similar pastoral reasons, have accepted it, choosing not to further inflame an already tense matter, which occurs only once a year and is optional.