One of the most unnecessary but contentiously divisive contemporary liturgical battles has suddenly become ancient history, thanks to a Decree issued today by the Congregation for Divine Worship, altering the rubrical requirement that only men may have their feet washed at the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. Referring to those designated to have their feet washed, it simply changes the words "the men who have been chosen" to "those who are chosen from among the People of God." In his accompanying letter to Cardinal Sarah (Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship), the Holy Father states as his intention improving the way the footwashing rite is performed "to express more fully the meaning of Jesus' gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity."
The battle was always an unnecessary one, since the footwashing - only introduced into the Mass of the Lord's Supper in 1955 - was always optional and so never needed to be performed at that Mass. Furthermore, it was also unnecessary since the restriction was the result of two non-invidious factors. The first was the widespread popular tendency to treat the rite as a sort of play, re-enacting the footwashing at the Last Supper, which obviously encouraged the use of 12 men to represent visually the 12 apostles. The second was the unquestioned historical fact that, prior to its insertion into the Mass in 1955, the footwashing had long been performed in a variety of settings, in which both men and women were included, but never together. For centuries, Bishops and Abbots in their cathedrals and chapter rooms and kings and noblemen in their palaces often washed the feet of (usually 12, sometimes more) men. Likewise, Abbesses in their chapter rooms and queens and noblewomen in their palaces often washed the feet of women. The separation reflected the routine separation of the sexes. Traditionally, men and women sat or stood on separate sides of the church, a custom canon 1262 of the 1917 code of Canon Law still recommended as in harmony with ancient practice. This largely reflected the common practice of men generally associating with other men and women with other women outside the home. (When I was growing up in the 1950s, at family gatherings the men usually all gathered in one room to talk about sports and politics, while the women gathered in another room to talk about the things women tended to talk about. That was just the way it was, the way everyone expected it to be.)
Social customs have changed. Men and women now mix much more freely than in the past. But for most of history - and still, I suspect, in many parts of the world - it would generally be seen as inappropriate, perhaps even scandalous, for someone to wash the feet of someone of a different sex, who was not a close family relation. Again that's just the way it was/is. Whether our changing social mores have made the world better or worse may be debated. But the fact is that society (at least in the developed world) has changed, and with that change have come altered expectations of how men and women may and should interact.
If one were putting on a Passion Play, then one would logically choose men to play the roles of the apostles. But the liturgy is not a play. It is a symbolic ritual action. And the symbolism of the footwashing rite is - as Pope Francis has noted - "to express more fully the meaning of Jesus' gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity." In a changed social setting in which traditional expectations about the social separation of the sexes no longer apply, then it makes perfect sense to include both men and women in the ritual.
In the liturgical chaos of recent decades, the footwashing has often become a cause for contention and division - the very opposite of what it is supposed to signify. It has been used by people - on both sides - to push their particular partisan agendas. In the process it has taken on an importance that its modest place and very recent inclusion in the Mass of the Lord's Supper would suggest it should not have.
In addition to dividing communities on the gender issue, this inflated-in-importance footwashing rite has also sometimes been transformed into footwashing for everyone - or, even more strangely - alternative rituals like handwashing (as if handwashing didn't have its own completely different - and in this case irrelevant - symbolism).
For decades now, pastors have been torn between fidelity to the norms of the Church's communal worship and the expectations of parishioners, for whom this ritual remembrance of Christ's "limitless charity" had become a partisan political statement, Thank you, Pope Francis, for putting an end to this unnecessary cause for contention and allowing the footwashing rite to return to its true meaning.
(The photo above is Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475, in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).