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Monique Cameron wrote:

Hi, guys —

  • In the Holy Thursday service, in the foot washing ceremony, shouldn't all those who get their feet washed be men since they represent the Apostles of Jesus?
  • Is there anything official about this you can point me to?


  { Shouldn't all those who get their feet washed on Holy Thursday be men since they represent Jesus? }

Mike replied:

Hi, Monique —

This is one of my major pet peeves with the Church on a non-doctrinal custom, but it's also an area where, I believe, we can have a difference of opinion.

In the Boston area, many, if not most, of the sermons on Holy Thursday emphasis the priesthood of the baptized and the importance of fulfilling our baptismal calling to serve others.

While this is important, the universal priesthood of believers was not initiated on Holy Thursday.

The universal priesthood of believers is initiated at our own Baptism. We can celebrate our universal priesthood on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, just after the liturgical season of Christmas.

Remember His Baptism is Our Baptism. Why? Because in Baptism we are not only baptized into His Death, but baptized into His Resurrection.

The ministerial priesthood of Holy Orders was instituted on Holy Thursday.

Again, in my opinion, because priests want to be liked and not offend anyone in the parish, especially the hard working but uncatechized women of the parish, instead of talking about the call to the sacramental priesthood and what the ministerial priesthood is all about, they bow to people pressure from within the inner parish circles on this, especially when it comes to this non-doctrinal custom of the washing of the feet.

On a night where the emphasis should be on the ministerial, sacramental priesthood, it is instead focused on the priesthood of the baptized.

In doing so, and allowing the washing of women's feet, pastors and priests of the Church can mistakenly be sending an incorrect, doctrinal error, that women can become priests.

Beside the Holy Thursday Rubrics state:

"After the Homily, where a pastoral reason suggests it, the Washing of Feet follows. The men who have been chosen (viri selecti) are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a 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."

The term viri selecti does indeed mean chosen men — that is, adult males who have been selected for participation in the rite. Therefore, if someone is washing the feet of any females (or, it seems, even of males under 18, per 1983 CIC 97), he is in violation of the Holy Thursday rubrics.

You said:

  • In the Holy Thursday service, in the foot washing ceremony, shouldn't all those who get their feet washed be men since they represent the apostles of Jesus?

Yes, it should for the reasons I've stated above.

You said:

  • Is there anything official about this you can point me to?

Yes! In my research, I've found several quotes, where our current Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI and our previous Holy Father, Pope St. John Paul II emphasize the two different customs for the washing of the feet. I personally tend to side with our previous Holy Father, Pope St. John Paul II's custom.  The appropriate texts of the quotes follow below. The sections I have quoted below are long, but I think it is important to read as much in context as possible. The key areas are highlighted appropriately.

NOTE: Sometimes when we read writings from our current or previous pontiffs we can forget who they are talking to.  As you read the excerpts below on Pope John Paul II's Letter to Priests remember, he is not talking to you, nor to the ordinary Catholic parishioner in the pew,
but directly to his fellow priests who have also received the sacrament of Holy Orders.

In Pope St. John Paul II's 1995 Holy Thursday Letter to Priests he stated:

6. At this point I would like to touch on the even wider issue of the role which women are called to play in the building up of the Church. The Second Vatican Council fully grasped the logic of the Gospel, in Chapters Two and Three of the Constitution Lumen gentium, when it presented the Church first as the People of God and only afterwards as a hierarchical structure. The Church is first and foremost the People of God, since all her members, men and women alike, share - each in his or her specific way - in the prophetic, priestly and royal mission of Christ. While I invite you to reread those texts of the Council, I will limit myself here to some brief reflections drawn from the Gospel.

Just before his Ascension into heaven, Christ commands the Apostles: "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15). To preach the Gospel is to carry out the prophetic mission which has different forms in the Church, according to the charism granted to each individual (cf. Ephesians 4:11-13). In that circumstance, since it was a question of the Apostles and their own particular mission, this task was entrusted to certain men; but if we read the Gospel accounts carefully, especially that of John, we cannot but be struck by the fact that the prophetic mission, considered in all its breadth and diversification, is given to both men and women. Suffice it to mention, for example, the Samaritan woman and her dialogue with Christ at Jacob's Well in Sychar (cf. John 4:1-42): it is to her, a Samaritan woman and a sinner, that Jesus reveals the depths of the true worship of God, who is concerned not about the place but rather about the attitude of worship "in spirit and truth".

And what shall we say of the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha? The Synoptics, speaking of the "contemplative" Mary, note the pre-eminence which Christ gives to contemplation over activity (cf. Luke 10:42). Still more important is what Saint John writes in the context of the raising of their brother Lazarus. In this case it is to Martha, the more "active" of the two, that Jesus reveals the profound mysteries of his mission: "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die" (John 11:25-26). The Paschal Mystery is summed up in these words addressed to a woman.

But let us proceed in the Gospel account and enter into the Passion narrative. Is it not an incontestable fact that women were the ones closest to Christ along the way of the cross and at the hour of his death? A man, Simon of Cyrene, is forced to carry the cross (cf. Matthew 27:32); but many women of Jerusalem spontaneously show him compassion along the "via crucis" (cf. Luke 23:27). The figure of Veronica, albeit not biblical, expresses well the feelings of the women of Jerusalem along the via dolorosa.

Beneath the cross there is only one Apostle, John, the son of Zebedee, whereas there are several women (cf. Matthew 27:55-56): the Mother of Christ who, according to tradition, had followed him on his journey to Calvary; Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee, John and James; Mary, the mother of James the Less and Joseph; and Mary Magdalene. All these women were fearless witnesses of Jesus' agony; all were present at the anointing and the laying of his body in the tomb. After his burial, as the day before the Sabbath draws to a close, they depart, but with the intention of returning as soon as it is allowed. And it is they who will be the first to go to the tomb, early in the morning on the day after the feast. They will be the first witnesses of the empty tomb, and again they will be the ones to tell the Apostles (cf. John 20:1-2). Mary Magdalene, lingering at the tomb in tears, is the first to meet the Risen One, who sends her to the Apostles as the first herald of his Resurrection (cf. John 20:11-18). With good reason therefore the Eastern tradition places Mary Magdalene almost on a par with the Apostles, since she was the first to proclaim the truth of the Resurrection, followed by the Apostles and Christ's disciples.

Thus women too, together with men, have a part in the prophetic mission of Christ. And the same can be said of their sharing in his priestly and royal mission. The universal priesthood of the faithful and the royal dignity belong to both men and women. Most enlightening in this regard is a careful reading of the passages of the First Letter of St Peter (2:9-10) and of the Conciliar Constitution Lumen gentium (nn. 10-12; 34-36).

7. In that Dogmatic Constitution, the chapter on the People of God is followed by the one on the hierarchical structure of the Church. Here reference is made to the ministerial priesthood, to which by the will of Christ only men are admitted. Today in some quarters the fact that women cannot be ordained priests is being interpreted as a form of discrimination. But is this really the case?

Certainly, the question could be put in these terms if the hierarchical priesthood granted a social position of privilege characterized by the exercise of power. But this is not the case: the ministerial priesthood, in Christ's plan, is an expression not of domination but of service! Anyone who interpreted it as domination would certainly be far from the intention of Christ, who in the Upper Room began the Last Supper by washing the feet of the Apostles. In this way he strongly emphasized the ministerial character of the priesthood which he instituted that very evening. "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).


In Pope St. John Paul II's 2001 Holy Thursday Letter to Priests he stated:

6. But it is not so much on pastoral problems that I wish to dwell. Holy Thursday, the special day of our vocation, calls us to reflect above all on who we are, and in particular on our journey to holiness. It is from this source too that our apostolic zeal will flow.

So, as we gaze upon Christ at the Last Supper, as he becomes for us the bread that is broken, as he stoops down in humble service at the feet of the Apostles, how can we not experience, together with Peter, the same feeling of unworthiness in the face of the greatness of the gift received? You shall never wash my feet (John 13:8). Peter was wrong to reject Christ's gesture. But he was right to feel unworthy of it. It is important, on this day of love par excellence, that we should feel the grace of the priesthood as a super-abundance of mercy.

11. On this holy day, therefore, let us ask Christ to help us to rediscover, for ourselves, the full beauty of this Sacrament. Did not Jesus himself help Peter to make this discovery? If I do not wash you, you have no part in me (John 13:8). Jesus of course was not referring directly to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but in some sense he was pointing to it, alluding to that process of purification which would begin with his redeeming Death, and to its sacramental application to individuals down the ages.

I couldn't find any Letters to Priests from Pope Benedict XVI but I did find a reference to this issue when he gave his 2008 Holy Thursday homily to the parishioners coming for Mass. His view appears to be accepting of the custom of the washing of the feet to both:

  • those called to the universal priesthood and
  • those called to the ministerial priesthood

but then again his talk was to a wider audience; more then just priest. In it he said:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

St John begins his account of how Jesus washed his disciples' feet with an especially solemn, almost liturgical language. "Before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (John 13:1). Jesus' hour, to which all his work had been directed since the outset, had come. John used two words to describe what constitutes the content of this hour: passage (metabainein, metabasis) and agape - love. The two words are mutually explanatory; they both describe the Pasch of Jesus: the Cross and the Resurrection, the Crucifixion as an uplifting, a passage to God's glory, a passing from the world to the Father. It is not as though after paying the world a brief visit, Jesus now simply departs and returns to the Father. The passage is a transformation. He brings with him his flesh, his being as a man. On the Cross, in giving himself, he is as it were fused and transformed into a new way of being, in which he is now always with the Father and contemporaneously with humankind. He transforms the Cross, the act of killing, into an act of giving, of love to the end. With this expression to the end, John anticipates Jesus' last words on the Cross: everything has been accomplished, "It is finished" (19:30). Through Jesus' love the Cross becomes metabasis, a transformation from being human into being a sharer in God's glory. He involves us all in this transformation, drawing us into the transforming power of his love to the point that, in our being with him, our life becomes a passage, a transformation. Thus, we receive redemption, becoming sharers in eternal love, a condition for which we strive throughout our life.

This essential process of Jesus' hour is portrayed in the washing of the feet in a sort of prophetic and symbolic act. In it, Jesus highlights with a concrete gesture precisely what the great Christological hymn in the Letter to the Philippians describes as the content of Christ's mystery. Jesus lays down the clothes of his glory, he wraps around his waist the towel of humanity and makes himself a servant. He washes the disciples' dirty feet and thus gives them access to the divine banquet to which he invites them. The devotional and external purifications purify man ritually but leave him as he is replaced by a new bathing: Jesus purifies us through his Word and his Love, through the gift of himself. "You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you", he was to say to his disciples in the discourse on the vine (John 15:3). Over and over again he washes us with his Word. Yes, if we accept Jesus' words in an attitude of meditation, prayer and faith, they develop in us their purifying power. Day after today we are as it were covered by many forms of dirt, empty words, prejudices, reduced and altered wisdom; a multi-facetted semi-falsity or falsity constantly infiltrates deep within us. All this clouds and contaminates our souls, threatens us with an incapacity for truth and the good. If we receive Jesus' words with an attentive heart they prove to be truly cleansing, purifications of the soul, of the inner man. The Gospel of the washing of the feet invites us to this, to allow ourselves to be washed anew by this pure water, to allow ourselves to be made capable of convivial communion with God and with our brothers and sisters. However, when Jesus was pierced by the soldier's spear, it was not only water that flowed from his side but also blood (John 19:34; cf. 1 John 5: 6-8). Jesus has not only spoken; he has not left us only words. He gives us himself. He washes us with the sacred power of his Blood, that is, with his gift of himself to the end, to the Cross. His word is more than mere speech; it is flesh and blood for the life of the world (John 6:51). In the holy sacraments, the Lord kneels ever anew at our feet and purifies us. Let us pray to him that we may be ever more profoundly penetrated by the sacred cleansing of his love and thereby truly purified!

If we listen attentively to the Gospel, we can discern two different dimensions in the event of the washing of the feet. The cleansing that Jesus offers his disciples is first and foremost simply his action - the gift of purity, of the capacity for God that is offered to them. But the gift then becomes a model, the duty to do the same for one another. The Fathers have described these two aspects of the washing of the feet with the words sacramentum and exemplum. Sacramentum in this context does not mean one of the seven sacraments but the mystery of Christ in its entirety, from the Incarnation to the Cross and the Resurrection: all of this becomes the healing and sanctifying power, the transforming force for men and women, it becomes our metabasis, our transformation into a new form of being, into openness for God and communion with him. But this new being which, without our merit, he simply gives to us must then be transformed within us into the dynamic of a new life. The gift and example overall, which we find in the passage on the washing of the feet, is a characteristic of the nature of Christianity in general. Christianity is not a type of moralism, simply a system of ethics. It does not originate in our action, our moral capacity. Christianity is first and foremost a gift: God gives himself to us - he does not give something, but himself. And this does not only happen at the beginning, at the moment of our conversion. He constantly remains the One who gives. He continually offers us his gifts. He always precedes us. This is why the central act of Christian being is the Eucharist: gratitude for having been gratified, joy for the new life that he gives us.

Yet with this, we do not remain passive recipients of divine goodness. God gratifies us as personal, living partners. Love given is the dynamic of loving together, it wants to be new life in us starting from God. Thus, we understand the words which, at the end of the washing of the feet, Jesus addresses to his disciples and to us all: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (John 13:34). The new commandment does not consist in a new and difficult norm that did not exist until then. The new thing is the gift that introduces us into Christ's mentality. If we consider this, we perceive how far our lives often are from this newness of the New Testament and how little we give humanity the example of loving in communion with his love. Thus, we remain indebted to the proof of credibility of the Christian truth which is revealed in love. For this very reason we want to pray to the Lord increasingly to make us, through his purification, mature persons of the new commandment.

In the Gospel of the washing of the feet, Jesus' conversation with Peter presents to us yet another detail of the praxis of Christian life to which we would like finally to turn our attention. At first, Peter did not want to let the Lord wash his feet: this reversal of order, that is, that the master - Jesus - should wash feet, that the master should carry out the slave's service, contrasted starkly with his reverential respect for Jesus, with his concept of the relationship between the teacher and the disciple. You shall never wash my feet, he said to Jesus with his usual impetuosity (John 13:8). His concept of the Messiah involved an image of majesty, of divine grandeur. He had to learn repeatedly that God's greatness is different from our idea of greatness; that it consists precisely in stooping low, in the humility of service, in the radicalism of love even to total self-emptying.

And we too must learn it anew because we systematically desire a God of success and not of the Passion; because we are unable to realize that the Pastor comes as a Lamb that gives itself and thus leads us to the right pasture.

When the Lord tells Peter that without the washing of the feet he would not be able to have any part in him, Peter immediately asks impetuously that his head and hands be washed. This is followed by Jesus' mysterious saying: "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet" (John 13:10). Jesus was alluding to a cleansing with which the disciples had already complied; for their participation in the banquet, only the washing of their feet was now required. But of course this conceals a more profound meaning. What was Jesus alluding to? We do not know for certain. In any case, let us bear in mind that the washing of the feet, in accordance with the meaning of the whole chapter, does not point to any single specific sacrament but the sacramentum Christi in its entirety - his service of salvation, his descent even to the Cross, his love to the end that purifies us and makes us capable of God. Yet here, with the distinction between bathing and the washing of the feet, an allusion to life in the community of the disciples also becomes perceptible, an allusion to the life of the Church. It then seems clear that the bathing that purifies us once and for all and must not be repeated is Baptism - being immersed in the death and Resurrection of Christ, a fact that profoundly changes our life, giving us as it were a new identity that lasts, if we do not reject it as Judas did. However, even in the permanence of this new identity, given by Baptism, for convivial communion with Jesus we need the washing of the feet. What does this involve? It seems to me that the First Letter of St John gives us the key to understanding it. In it we read: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1:8ff). We are in need of the washing of the feet, the cleansing of our daily sins, and for this reason we need to confess our sins as St John spoke of in this Letter. We have to recognize that we sin, even in our new identity as baptized persons. We need confession in the form it has taken in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In it the Lord washes our dirty feet ever anew and we can be seated at table with him.

But in this way the word with which the Lord extends the sacramentum, making it the exemplum, a gift, a service for one's brother, also acquires new meaning: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet" (John 13:14). We must wash one another's feet in the mutual daily service of love. But we must also wash one another's feet in the sense that we must forgive one another ever anew. The debt for which the Lord has pardoned us is always infinitely greater than all the debts that others can owe us (cf. Matthew 18:21-35). Holy Thursday exhorts us to this: not to allow resentment toward others to become a poison in the depths of the soul. It urges us to purify our memory constantly, forgiving one another whole-heartedly, washing one another's feet, to be able to go to God's banquet together.

Holy Thursday is a day of gratitude and joy for the great gift of love to the end that the Lord has made to us. Let us pray to the Lord at this hour, so that gratitude and joy may become in us the power to love together with his love. Amen.

Like I said earlier:

On a night that is ideal for talking about and calling from the pew for new vocations to the priesthood, many priests instead focus on the priesthood of the baptized. In doing so, and in allowing the washing of women's feet, pastors and priests can mistakenly, without intent,
be sending an incorrect, doctrinal error, that women can become priests.

For anyone interested, here's how I would handle these situations from a priest's view:

Father, why are only men having their feet washed this Thursday?
Aren't you being a male chauvinist pig, discriminating against the hard working women of our parish?

The sacrament of Holy Orders which we celebrate on Holy Thursday has nothing to do with being a male chauvinist pig or discriminating against the hard working women of our parish.
  • Do I, as a man, have any right to complain to the Church or to God, that I can't get pregnant?

  • Do I, as a man, have any right to complain to the Church or to God, that there are certain physical features women have, that I can't have?

Of course not. The issue has to do with functions and roles, not respect or
any perceived lack of respect.

I heard someone else put it this way:

I think other religions equate a lack of authority with a lack of respect.

Catholicism respects women in a way that is different from what we typically see as respect. In other words, we, the culture, tend to assume that if a woman is not allowed to do something, it is because she is not respected.

This person is correct. The primary feminist in the Catholic Church throughout the ages has been Our Blessed Mother. If Jesus was showing a lack of respect to women when  he instituted the priesthood, he would have also been disrespecting his own Mother and, in doing so, breaking the fourth commandment to honor thy father and mother.

There is no other human person in the Church that is held in the highest respect than the Our Lady and she obviously was never a ministerial priest.

But your practice does not make me feel at home or welcome in the Church?


The Church wasn't primarily established by Our Lord to make people feel good.
It does strive to make people feel fulfilled and happy in their special calling in the Church but nowhere in the Gospel or the Epistles will you find a case for the primary necessity of making the faithful feel good.

We are called to deepen our understanding of faith through study.

When we combine our informed Catholic understanding of the faith with our specific calling within the Church, we are a powerful presence of the Lord to the world.

So to summarize what I've said, Yes, men's feet should only be washing because the Church celebrates the institution of the priesthood on Holy Thursday but either custom could be practiced, because we also acknowledge universal priesthood of baptized believers in the faith.

That said, it would be pastorally prudent to wash only men's feet, otherwise it may signal, incorrectly to women parishioners in the pews, that women can become priests.

Hope this helps,


John replied:

Just to add to Mike's detailed answer.

Washing the feet of women on Holy Thursday is simply poor iconography. It is like having a man play the role of the Blessed Mother in a play. It's silly. The Apostles were men.

  • Why do we have women up there representing them?

That said, one can still emphasize the ministerial priesthood by washing the feet of women; in this sense.

By washing the feet of the Apostles, Jesus is showing the Apostles what they must do for their flock. Therefore the priest is not playing the role of Christ, so much as the role of the priest washing the feet of his flock.

As for the washing of the feet being tied to ordination, this is simply pious tradition (emphasis on the small t). To be honest, most in the congregation are unaware of it. Moreover, this tradition is certainly not directly stated or implied in the text.

But Mike has a point, if people see women playing the role of an Apostle, they may mistakenly begin to think that there were women Apostles. That is easy enough to do, because there were women disciples (students or followers), but all disciples were not Apostles; although the
Twelve Apostles were obviously disciples.

At any rate, it's just plain silly to have a woman playing the role of a man.

  • What's next?

Shall the annual children's Christmas play feature:

  • a little girl playing the role of St. Joseph?
  • a boy play the Blessed Virgin?
  • a combination of both playing the Magi? : (


Eric replied:

Hi, Monique —

This is a big annual fight.

My colleagues have made some valid points I am strongly sympathetic to.

However, Rome allowed the Archbishop of Boston to introduce the custom of women's washing. That being done, it became a de facto authorization for other bishops, for better or for worse.

It's fine to have an opinion but, from a canonical standpoint, follow your bishop. If he is wrong, the responsibility is on his head, not yours.

He is the vicar of Christ in his diocese and may have permission you don't know about.


Mike replied:

John said:
It is like having a man play the role of the Blessed Mother in a play.

I like it! LOL


John replied:

As trivial as that sounds,

It is the argument I find works best with poorly catechized Catholics.

Something just clicks when they think about it. I had this discussion with a woman in church the other day. I tried a variation. I asked her:

"If she were casting a film about the life of Christ would she pick Meryl Streep to play the role of Peter, the Apostle?"

The woman laughed and said of course not. So I followed up:

"Why would you have a woman play that role on Holy Thursday?"

She had no answer and added she had never thought about it in that light and agreed that it didn't make any sense.

So it's a real, simple, and easy-to-understand argument. You don't need to get into the theology. Just ask them:

  • If you were making a movie about Oprah would you give the lead role to a skinny white male actor?



Monique replied:

Thank you for your reply.

It was very helpful.


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