Wis State Journal asked if Pope's Holy Thursday feet washing abrogated liturgical law, because of "papal infallibility"

Wisconsin State Journal asked if Pope's Holy Thursday feet washing abrogated liturgical law, because of "papal infallibility"? Well, no! Not even close.

Thank you for the email and the chance to provide clarification to your question regarding the optional Washing of Feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. I hope your Lent has proven spiritually fruitful and that you’re blessed with a holy Triduum.

The Roman Missal of the Catholic Church contains the liturgical law regarding the celebration of the Holy Mass, along with the Mass prayers, etc… The current (since 1970) Roman Missal of the Catholic Church contains the directives for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday which are obligatory throughout the Catholic Church (i.e. throughout the world). In the Roman Missal, it states in the English translation, “The men who have been chosen are led by the ministers to seats prepared in suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each one, and, with the help of the ministers, pours water over each one’s feet and then dries them.” [Emphasis added]. Likewise, in the current Roman Missal, it states equivalently in the original Latin, “Viri selecti deducuntur a ministris ad sedilia loco apto parata …” [Emphasis added].

The previous Roman Missal of the Catholic Church (used as the ordinary missal from the 16th century through the 1960s and still used today in the “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass) contains a similar instruction, “In medio presbyterii, vel in ipsa aula ecclesiae, parata sint sedilia hinc inde pro duodecimo viris, …” [Emphasis added]. Thus, one sees the great continuity through the centuries of this practice of The Washing of the Feet of men which represents Jesus washing the feet of the twelve male apostles at the Last Supper.

The twelve male apostles are listed in Sacred Scripture by name. For example, in Matthew Chapter 10, they are listed as Simon (called Peter), Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, (Jude) Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot (who betrayed him). In Matthew 26:20, in the account of the Last Supper, it states “When it was evening, he reclined at table with the Twelve.”

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper represents the institution of the priesthood by Jesus Christ. Thus, it is reasonable that for the Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday, men (having their feet washed) represent the twelve male apostles and thus, the ministerial priesthood of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church. It all logically fits together.

A couple of short points:

1) The Latin word “homo” refers to mankind, i.e., to human beings in the generic sense. The word is used in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (Profession of Faith) when we say at Mass, “for us men and for our salvation, he came down from heaven” or in Latin, “Qui propter nos homines et propter nostrum salutem descendit de caelis.” The Latin word “vir” or “viri”, which is listed above in the directives in the Roman Missal for the Washing of the Feet, refers to males (i.e., not mankind in the generic sense), and thus, means something different than “homo” and is thus, specific to males.

2) Bishop Morlino, just like all Catholic bishops throughout the world, asks priests to follow the liturgical law of the Catholic Church. Thus, the proper Washing of the Feet, as articulated above, is simply one example of obedience to universal liturgical law.

3) If Pope Francis wants to change an aspect of the universal liturgical law through a legislative act (which he has the power to do unilaterally), Bishop Morlino and other bishops throughout the world would obey the newly-promulgated liturgical law. Pope Francis has not done this in regards to the Rite of Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursday.

4) Yesterday, Pope Francis washed the feet of two women along with men at the youth detention center in Italy. This is a single instance in a unique situation. Pope Francis, by disregarding a law in a particular instance, is not abrogating that law. Thus, his recent action is not a change in the liturgical law for the universal church, which would require a legislative act, as mentioned above.

5) Pope Francis’ unique position in the church allows him not to comply with certain laws (i.e., certain laws not pertaining to divine or natural law), in this case a liturgical law. Bishops and priests do not have that option in regards to the Mandatum Rite (Washing of the Feet). Per the Roman Missal, bishops and priests can either wash the feet of men or omit the rite.

I hope this provides some clarification. Thank you again for your question. Let’s pray for each other as we approach Easter.

Blessings, Msgr. Jim Bartylla
Diocese of Madison

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