Men Only Foot Washing

Thomas MacDonald writes well here about the foot washing to take place at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday.

What he doesn’t mention is that the rubrics at the Mass call for men to have their feet washed. I wonder how many parishes have “creative” priests who use this as an opportunity to be “inclusive”. I’ve already had one person ask my advice on Facebook on how to respond to his priest who wants his seven year old daughter to be one of the people having their feet washed.

We should get this straight. The tradition and the rubrics mandate that men are to have their feet washed. Not little girls, not women, not boys. Men. Why is this? Because the foot washing ceremony is not only an example of Christ being the lowest servant of all, as Tom’s article makes clear, but it is also a consolidation of the apostolic ministry.

How often have you heard this one? “Jesus never ordained priests and bishops–the whole masculine hierarchy thing is a man made invention.” Not so. The Church teaches that the Last Supper was not only the institution of the Holy Eucharist, but also the ordination of the first presbyters of the church. Our Lord establishes the Eucharist and says to the twelve, “Do this in memory of me.” As the Passover is re-configured into the Eucharist, so the twelve tribes of Israel are re-configued into the apostolic ministry. Furthermore, when we read the text closely we see that the whole passage which we call ‘the high priestly prayer of Christ’ not only establishes Christ as the great High Priest, but we also see how he is sharing every aspect of his priestly ministry with his apostles.

Twelve men are chosen to bear the authority of Christ on earth and at the Last Supper he passes on his authority and ministry on to them. This is why in John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, Christ’s long discourse has as it’s theme “As the Father has sent me, so I have sent you.” (Jn.18.18) The entire long discourse is his delegation of authority and ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. The fact of the matter is, that despite the Lord’s mother being the holiest of people, and despite the fact that he had many holy women in his entourage, Jesus chose twelve men to be his apostles.

The foot washing therefore has a strong resonance with the establishment of the apostolic ministry. As Christ has served them, they are to serve the rest of the church and the world. The twelve men who have their feet washed therefore represent the twelve apostles as well as representing the whole people of God. As Christ has become the slave of all, so the apostles too are to be “the servants of the servants of God.”

Washing the feet of little girls–sweet though it may be–does not have quite the same symbolic power.

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  • Christian

    Why ‘presbyters’ and not ‘bishops’?

  • Victor

    Basically, it is the same argument that calls (called?) for only male altar servers. We all know that one didn’t really hold… As far as I know, until the liturgical reforms of Pope Paul VI the “mandatum” could only be done with priests participating, which is why it happened only in cathedrals, monasteries and major parish churches. Out of a wish to give more members of the laity the chance to experience this rite, the criteria for the participants were changed. I fear though that for the above reasons, we have only two alternatives: either Rome recognizes that the feet of females can be washed too, or we go back to the older criteria. As things are, we are in the same situation as 25 years ago with female altar servers: officially it was forbidden, yet everybody did it.

  • Steve a video on this issue as well

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Thanks for the linkage! I added a little update with a link back to this post, because people just don’t understand this element of the rubrics. It has nothing to do with sexism or any other absurd label people want to apply. The washing of the feet was a priestly act, performed by the High Priest (Hebrews 4:15) upon men he was ordaining to ministry.

  • Sarah @ Beaten Copper Lamp

    For the co-ed foot washing trend to die out, we need to readjust our focus on Holy Thursday. I think part of the problem is the way people tend to meditate on the foot-washing Gospel passage. As a child, I was always taught that it symbolized service and selflessness in general; sort-of a preview of Christ’s sacrifice. The first time I heard the “men only” rule it threw me for a loop. What, priests can’t be nice to women? Jesus only came to minister to other guys?

    Now I see that Christ was setting up the priesthood at the Last Supper, and the foot-washing was more of a lesson in hierarchical humility. Yours is the best explanation I’ve seen, rather than just “Ewww women get your cooties away from the altar.”

  • Jess

    Right, because women and girls not only didn’t in the past, but cannot now represent the entirety of the people of God in the way men can.

    This is while I’ll be hanging out at seders this weekend instead of Mass.

  • Aristotle A. Esguerra

    The Missal’s rubrics state:

    “After the Homily, where a pastoral reason suggests it, the Washing of Feet follows. The men who have been chosen …”

    Might the intransigence of those who advocate for co-ed footwashees be a pastoral reason for going directly to the Prayer of the Faithful in a particular situation?

  • priest’s wife (@byzcathwife)

    We’ve never had to succumb to lay ministers of the Eucharist or non-male altar servers (this isn’t our tradition anyways) but it is near to impossible to get 12 adult males to Liturgy on Thursday….having a micro-mission is HARD

    (my husband- having bi-ritual faculties has been going to each of the Roman-rite churches to help them with their reconciliation services for the week before Holy Week and the next three days- about 3+ hours every evening…he is the permanent supply priest for the 6:30 AM Sunday Mass-yes even Palm Sunday and Easter- at a mega-parish of 10,000 families and 2 priests- praise God for the 10 married deacons-and then we leave at 9 for the hour drive to get to our Liturgy….)

  • Tim S.

    It’s amazing how many priests obviously don’t bother to consult an Ordo, let alone “review” the Missal ahead of time to become familiar with the special rites of Holy Week. Obvious omissions, intentional or not; “abbreviated” liturgies; wearing of violet instead of red on Palm Sunday, etc. So the “inclusive” foot washing is just one of many problems. Unfortunately, some bishops apparently did not do a good job training their priests about the “new” Missal. That would have been a good time to correct some liturgical abuses and “cavalier” attitudes about the liturgy But, commonly, the “older” priests simply continue to “do their own thing” and that’s that.

  • Pidge (Celia Blay)

    Missing the point a bit aren’t you? Jesus washed his disciples’ feet was to set an example of humility and service. You are reading into the text something that isn’t there and ignoring what is. For someone in authority, such as a priest, to wash the feet of a child is to show more humility than to wash the feet of selected men.

  • veritas

    Don’t start me on the female altar servers mistake.

    Yes, without being a raving heretic or sede vacantist, I can call it a mistake.

    The Pope is guaranteed infallibility, but this is very clearly defined and does not mean that every single thing a particular Pope says is infallible, nor does it mean that every liturgical change a particular Pope permits is infallible or written in stone.

    There are many good, orthodox Catholics, including a priests I know personally, who believe, with clearly reasoned arguments, that the permission to use female altar servers was a grave mistake. I believe, that one day that decision will be reversed.

    In the meantime, it in no way excuses people from the Church rule regarding the Washing of the Feet. For several important reasons the Washing can only be done to men.

  • Malvenu

    At the end of the Palm Sunday Mass our PP had two notices. 1, that there were still ‘more people’ needed to volunteer to have their feet washed (he might also have added that ‘it can be anybody’ or words to that effect, i think i had stopped listening).

    This puts me in a dilemma. Do i decline the invitation if, shortly before Mass on Thursday, the PP asks if i will have my feet washed as one of the “12 people” and actively participate in the liturgical abuse or do i accept it in the hope that 11 other men will do so before any other “people” put themselves forward?

    Notice number 2 was that we should leave church in silence at the end of Mass.

    I don’t think i imagined it but the noise level took significantly longer than usual to resemble that of a bar or market – perhaps as long as 30 seconds!

    The question is: do i really think that if the PP still needs one or two more “people” five minutes before the start of Mass on Thursday that none of the ten or eleven already volunteered isn’t a man?
    Another question would perhaps be, if the above scenario happens, which is worse: come to the aid of the PP who is now desperate to get anyone who is physically able to go to the front and remove their shoes and socks or refuse on a point of principle (suspecting that some of those already volunteered aren’t men) thus causing him to ask any “people” to participate?

    On the bright side, someone must have had a word with the PP about combining the two offertory prayers (Blessed are you Lord God of all creation…) into one clumsy mess because he seems to have stopped doing it!

  • savvy

    Women already represent the Church of God. Christ and his Church together form the whole Christ. God wants distinctions so, we don’t miss Jesus.

  • Dominic

    At my church growing up (in a traditional, Latin community) the young servers (all male) ranging from seven to eighteen were called upon to act as the twelve whose feet were washed. I do not disagree with anything written in the above post, but I am still unclear if the washing is reserved for men only. Or are those who are male, after the age of reason, able to have their feet washed?

  • Will

    What was the mistake? I thought it was approved by Pope John Paul II.

  • Will

    I really do not care about the washing of the feet. What does disturb me is the closed minds.

  • savvy

    I personally don’t care, but there is a lot of confusion about sacramental theology.

  • veritas

    Thanks Steve,

    I had already seen this. I am a regular watcher of Michael Voris, I think he is truly brilliant.

  • veritas

    Disagreeing with something a Pope has allowed is a very sensitive topic. One group see you as a heretic who challenges Church teaching, the other group see you as a sede vacantist – someone who thinks the present Popes are illegitimate.

    I can assure you I am neither.

    I believe absolutely in Papal Infallibility.

    However, this is a very carefully defined dogma and does NOT mean that everything a particular Pope does, says or allows is correct.

    For example, Pope Alexander VI was, I believe, an absolute disgrace and an an embarrassment for Catholics. His personal life was by any moral standards, appalling. If I had lived at his time I hope I would have been brave enough to join vocal opposition to his lifestyle. However, I also believe that God totally protected him from formally teaching any heresy. the Church was protected by Papal Infallibility.

    I greatly admire Pope John-Paul II. The example of living faith he showed us by the way he handled his physical decline and death was beautiful.

    However I believe he allowed several things to become established that were a mistake. One of these changes was the introduction of female altar servers.

  • Kate

    Resolution of this annual issue can be resolved easily. Stop doing foot washing in the parishes and reserve it to the Chrism Mass. Problem solved and Father’s explanation above is made even clearer by the clear association that Mass has with the consolidation of apostolic ministry and the priesthood. Problem solved.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Humility and service were certainly a key element, but nothing Jesus did had only one level of meaning. As an observant Jew, his actions have to be considered in the context of Judaism, and as a 1st century Israelite, his actions have to be considered in a historical context. That’s not, as you claim, “reading” anything into the text (eisegesis), but reading the full meaning out of the text (exegesis). In the piece of mine which Fr. was good enough to link, I point out the priestly nature of this action. He only washed the feet of the 12. If he had also washed the feet of the women (who are mentioned quite often), scripture would have said as much.

  • Will

    I disagree.

  • Dr. Eric

    Right, because Moses didn’t establish a male only hierarchical priesthood based on only one family. You obviously have missed the point of Fr. Longenecker’s article.

  • Tony Green

    The Seder is by its nature inclusive. (I’ll concede, for now, that it may also be hierarchical, what with the traditional distribution of various roles.)

    When Jesus says, “Do this in Memory of Me,” He is referring to the Eucharist as a whole. Authority and Delegation serves the Eucharist — not the other way around. According to our stations in life, ALL of us are to do our parts in whatever capacity “In memory of (Jesus).”

    Jesus is the Sole presider at the Lord’s Supper. Even if we see the Apostles being entrusted to a unique authority as the first Bishops, that to which those bishops were sent forth to do, as Fr. Longenecker himself puts forward, is to be, “the Slaves of All” — the “Servants of the Servants of God.” If all the baptized are the servants of God, there is no more appropriate way to symbolize that servatude than by washing the feet of a cross-section of the baptized.

    Otherwise bishops or priests ought only wash the feet of their ordained counterparts: bishops-to-bishops, priests-to-priests, and only at the Chrism Mass, which is the traditional gathering for the renewal of ordination promises.

  • savvy


    I think your issue is lay people, regardless of whether they are men or women.

    For example, in the East and I think in the Latin Mass, the altar is the place beyond.

    So nobody, goes there including the priest, unless he is preparing for Mass.

    Is this correct?

    I do respect this, but I think that those who prefer this have other options.

    Why rally against what is permitted in the Novous Ordo, since the style is different?

  • Jenne

    If asked you can be proactive and go around and ask any and all males to volunteer for you and then also lessen the load for the priest.

  • Erika

    Thanks for this post, Father, here’s another good one that goes along with yours:

    Q. Can the priest wash women’s feet on Holy Thursday?

    A. According to the sacramentary, “The men [vir] who have been chosen are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers, he pours water over each one’s feet and dries them.”

    In 1988 the Congregation for Divine Worship reaffirmed that only men’s feet are supposed to be washed: “The washing of the feet of chosen men [vir] which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came ‘not to be served, but to serve’ (Matt. 20:28). This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.”–Paschales Solemnitatis, 51.

    In both cases the latin word vir is used which means that men is not referring to mankind but only to males. Therefore, only men may have their feet washed on Holy Thursday. The practice of having the congregation wash each other’s feet is also not allowed as the instruction refers only to the priest as the washer of feet.

  • From The Pews

    Beautifully put, Sarah!

  • Joey S.

    I’ve been looking for the High Priest washing feet upon those entering the ministry, but don’t see it at Hebrew 4:15. Am I missing something?

  • Tom Grelinger

    What makes the situation “muddier” as Jimmy Akin posted back in 2005 is that Cardinal O’Malley was permitted to do this — Mark Shea ( points to the USCCB website which indicates it is permitted ( It bothers me that my own parish does this, but knowing that this matter can be argued from both sides makes me not want to even say anything.

  • James

    Apparently, Pope Francis has a different opinion on the matter.