The Last Supper: Tradition and traditions


An important liturgical event may soon take place: The pope could wash the feet of both male and female inmates next Thursday when he goes to to a juvenile facility.  This would constitute some kind of authoritative statement on the longstanding argument about whether the feet of men alone should be washed on Holy Thursday.  The current rubric reads: “The men who have been chosen (viri selecti) are led by the ministers to chairs prepared at a suitable place.”  This has been interpreted to mean that only men should have their feet washed.  Yet Pope Francis may wash the feet of women.

Actions such as this have caused great concern to many Catholics who are very protective of what they think of as “Tradition.”  In regard to what they mean by this word, they, like Donald S. Prudlo at Crisis magazine, refuse to accept Congar’s distinction between Tradition and tradition: “One should not blithely accept Fr. Congar’s exceptionally damaging dichotomy between ‘Tradition’ and ‘traditions; that has been drummed into our heads.  For it is those despised ‘traditions’ which held, protected, and undergirded the ‘Tradition’; through the centuries.”  Yet why did Congar raise such a distinction? (And to be fair, he did not “despise” traditions).  He raised the distinction because things that have often long been thought to be Tradition turned out to be traditions.  That is simply a historical fact in the history of the Church, and to ignore it does no one any good.  It is to fall into the category of those accused by Jesus in Mark 7:8, “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.”

So in lieu of what Pope Francis may do, two points often thought to be about Tradition must be made about the Last Supper of Jesus:

  1. Jesus may have washed the feet of women, and so can we
  2. The Last Supper was not the first Mass

The first is simply a real possibility, and I don’t wish to go into it too much.  There were probably women at the Last Supper, and that’s not a big deal.  The point of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples who were present had nothing to do with anything but making a profoundly kenotic point about the meaning of the Incarnation and love of one another.  Women are included in that love, and so their feet can be washed.

Second, because many cling to the Tradition that the Last Supper was the first Mass, they think that the priesthood was formally instituted at this moment, and so women could not have been there.  But I would argue that this is a tradition, not Tradition.  Yes, the Last Supper was the generative moment that would be later interpreted by the Church as Jesus promise to be with his Church in the Eucharistic celebration.  But that is very different from being the first Mass.  At the Last Supper there was as yet no sacrifice.  There was no death on the cross.  There was no sending of the Spirit.  There was no resurrection.  There was no confirmation of the mission of the Son by the Father.  Robert Daly argues that in Dominicae cenae, John Paul II goes beyond Trent in making this claim:

Dominicae cenae follows Trent in viewing the Last Supper as the moment when Christ instituted the Eucharist and, at the same time, the sacrament of the priesthood.  But the pope also goes beyond Trent in teaching that the Last Supper was the first Mass.  This view was once favoured by Catholic theologians; but most now argue that the Church was constituted in the Easter-event, and that the sacraments are also Easter realities grounded on the sending of the Holy Spirit.

The tradition at Trent was that St. Peter recited the same Eucharist prayer that they did!  That was a tradition, not Tradition.  Keeping the two carefully distinct is important.  Of course, we don’t always know which is which, and that is where discernment, prayer, trust in the magisterium and trust in the
Holy Spirit come into play.  But if Pope Francis washes the feet of women, I hope that we will recognize the washing of the feet of men only as being what it was: tradition not Tradition.

"HMMM. The most prominent person on the list of signatories is the schismatic Bishop Bernard ..."

Resolved: the Pope is not a ..."
"Of course he isn't a heretic. Pope Francis is acknowledging the pastoral realities surrounding divorce ..."

Resolved: the Pope is not a ..."
"I can't claim to have much knowledge about the theological specifics of divorce and remarriage, ..."

Resolved: the Pope is not a ..."
"Here we run into the tensions of trying to square evolution with the Genesis accounts ..."

Dominion, Stewardship and Smallpox

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kurt

    There is another issue here beyond Tradition and tradition. That is, even accpeting men only as tradition and not Tradition, there has been a debate as to if this tradition in law can be modified for pastoral reasons. Some have said no,the rubrics would have to be changed first. Others have said yes, it may. By going ahead and washing the feet of women (without using his authority to change the rubrics of the liturgy), the Pope has put himself on the side of “yes” to this question. That may be the more radical act.

  • Brian Martin

    Yves Congar on one side and on the other Donald S Prudlo (who??) A giant of Catholic Theology vs..the opinion of an associate professor from Jacksonville state University? Hmmm…whose opinion carries more weight to me? Well, depite a significant tendency toward the underdog, not in this case.
    The quote : “One should not blithely accept Fr. Congar’s exceptionally damaging dichotomy between ‘Tradition’ and ‘traditions; that has been drummed into our heads. For it is those despised ‘traditions’ which held, protected, and undergirded the ‘Tradition’; through the centuries.” speaks for itself. He sounds as though he would have a place in American politics. Speaking half truths and false claims as absolutes in order to bolster ones viewpoint. I have read some (not all) of Congar, and have found no evidence that he “despised” traditions. However, to some on Traditionalist extreme, any questioning of small t traditions is almost seen as despising the Church itself.


    In every Holy Thursday mass I can remember attending since high school (I am now in my late 50’s), the priest washed the feet of men and women. Is there some lapse of orthodoxy in this practice?

    • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      Not in my way of thinking. We always did the same growing up too, and the parish I go to now has everyone washing everyone’s feet, which I like.

      • Briggs

        And of course, we should always celebrate liturgies as we like.

        • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

          Of course not.

  • bluelawscribe

    My parish in Fort Wayne, Indiana, has always washed the feet of women (at least as long as I’ve been a member there for 15 years or so). In fact, everyone in attendance at the Mass of the Last Supper has his/her feet washed, not just a chosen 12 men, as was the case at a Mass of the Last Supper I attended at our local cathedral one year.

  • brettsalkeld

    I have never heard of this tradition either. Are not these people the same ones who reject inclusive language because “Men” actually means “persons” anyway?

    I really hope Francis washes the feet of women on Holy Thursday.

  • Brian Martin

    The first I hear of it was someone from EWTN on our local Catholic Radio station.

  • Chris Sullivan

    The gospels do not say there were no women present at the last supper.

    In our parish we have washed the feet of women too.

    This photo of Cdl Bergoglio washing the feet of mothers is a wonderful example of how to do the New Evangelisation in pictures. Beautiful.

    Go Bless

  • Charlie Baran

    Say what’s in black, do what’s in red… if The Church changes what is in black or red, we change our behavior. Until it’s changed, let’s follow the rubrics.

    I enjoyed the tradition vs Tradition argument, and we should keep that in mind. I sometimes have to remind myself when attending a local parish that what the priest is doing is only breaking tradition, not Tradition.

    On your two points, I don’t understand the relevance of the second point to the argument, but I’ll just go with I’m not educated enough to understand that point’s relevance. Regarding your first point, I suppose we can’t know if there were women present at the Last Supper, or if Jesus washed their feet. If we defer to the gospel’s, there is no mention of women there. I suppose you can argue the culture of that time may have influenced their exclusion if they were there.

    The danger I find in your first point is to follow it’s logical conclusion. Your assertion that, “Jesus may have washed the feet of women, and so can we” allows for any individual to justify many actions based on the premise that “Jesus may have… ” Jesus may have done a lot of things (except sin). And I think it’s unwise to base any liturgical traditions or Traditions on assumptions (Jesus may have liked giving children piggy back rides, but we don’t need to change rubrics to include them as part of our tradition).

    • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      I think part of the question is, what do we think if the Pope does it? In other words, is he playing loose with the gospels? Is he above the law? Or, since the tradition of feet washing comes from John, and by “disciples,” John always means men and women in his gospel, is it fair to read “disciples” as meaning men and women. Remember, while the other gospels mention the Twelve at table, for John it is just the “disciples.” He only mentions the Twelve once, in chapter 6. He’s more interested in the disciples of Jesus, which is always men and women. So I think that it’s more than a “may” that we’re dealing with here. The Pope is not above the law either. But the last canon of Canon Law emphasizing that law is at the service of salvation. That is what Jesus emphasized too. As Aquinas said with civil law I think he would say here: use prudence. We are all the Church. The Magisterium officially changes laws, but they change because practice changes. We too are the church, and our practice matters, including the practice of the Pope who is not himself the Magisterium. So there’s a lot to keep in mind here beyond what is “red” and “black.”

      • Charlie Baran

        Yes there is a lot beyond “red” and “black” to keep in mind. My point is that we have to be careful using the “what if” arguments. You said, “The Magisterium officially changes laws, but they change because practice changes. We too are the church, and our practice matters, including the practice of the Pope who is not himself the Magisterium.” The practices of individuals in the Church should never dictate a change in laws from the Magisterium. Just because many parishes in the US practice holding hands during the Our Father, the Magisterium shouldn’t change the Law to accommodate this practice. The same as if a group of bishops decides to start ordaining women. The Magisterium should not change Cannon Law to allow for the ordination of women. The practices of the Church, should always remain in line with the teachings of the church, and in the celebration of the mass, those teachings are outlined in “red” and “black”.

        I grew up with the pastor of my parish washing the feet of men and women, and the thought of the pope washing the feet of a woman doesn’t cause any scandal to me. But I think if he is going to do this, he should keep in mind that it could cause confusion to some. So if the pope is going to make a change in this tradition, using prudence, it should be accompanied with some official explanation for the change.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        ” The practices of individuals in the Church should never dictate a change in laws from the Magisterium. ”

        Then I suggest you never read a detailed history of canon law (or indeed of civil, secular law). This is exactly one the reasons that the law changes: lived experience and accepted understanding no longer agrees with what is written in the law. As a result, the law is changed to conform to practice.

        • Mark VA

          I think a distinction needs to be made between canon law, and the Magisterium of the Church. These two circles, while they do share some area, don’t share the same diameter:

          Clarity of definitions is paramount. However, in this context, once this clarity is achieved, I think both of you will be right – in your respective domains.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          ” I think both of you will be right – in your respective domains.”

          Sounds like a bit of leakage from the debate relativism on a neighboring thread! :-)

  • Mark VA

    Why do you seem to imply that those who value small things in Catholic culture fall “… into the category of those accused by Jesus in Mark 7:8, “You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” “?

    Let’s clear the air. The Catholic Left understands the importance of the small and seemingly insignificant things, as well as the Catholic Right does. The problem arises when, in their obsession to prune the Catholic tree to its minimum, many on the Catholic Left cut off the very buds and blooms that adorn, as well as delight and inform, our Faith. What’s left catches neither the eye, ear, nor heart.

    In my experience, Traditional Catholics take pleasure in beautiful and well done things, understanding full well their place in the overall hierarchy of things. Dwelling on the thin line that separates tradition from Tradition, constructing elaborate extrapolations from this distinction, echoes puritanism.

    • Julia Smucker

      In my experience in both Anabaptist and Evangelical circles (and also from a few I’ve encountered from the far end of the Catholic Left), I’ve heard plenty of arguments for pruning down to the minimum. This post is not that.

    • Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      I don’t imply that. I think you read it that way. I love small stuff. The only implication is that small stuff, while very important, is tradition, not Tradition. That’s all. As much as the distinction can be abused, which I admit happens very often, if we don’t have the distinction, we end up calling Tradition rather minor things.

  • Jordan

    Recently, in some dioceses, the Chrism Mass is celebrated before Holy Thursday. For this reason, those who try to connect the mandatum to the institution of the priesthood and advocate for a time-delayed Chrism Mass for convenience have, wittingly or not, disconnected sacerdotalism from the mandatum.

    I am decidedly liturgically traditional, and I have no problem with the washing of women’s feet for the above reason. Although I attend the EF most of the year, I attend the OF for Holy Week and Triduum. The church I attend for Holy Week has decided only to wash men’s feet. I wouldn’t care if women’s feet were washed at some future point. However, I also don’t care to tell the pastor what to do either. While I am sympathetic to those who view women’s participation at the mandatum as a matter of egalitarianism, I also wonder if focusing on gender inequality distorts or even obscures the meaning of the liturgy. Perhaps I would feel different if I were a woman.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I have known of dioceses where the bishop felt obliged to send an annual letter to remind his pastors that “viri=men” and therefore they should only wash the feet of men on Holy Thursday. Given the repetitive nature of this warning, I suspect that many pastors were ignoring his explicit instructions.

    Jordan: As for the gender issue, though I am not a woman, I have spoken to a fair number of women who are upset and feel slighted by what they regard as an arbitrary bit of gender discrimination. To them it is not about egalitarianism, per se, but rather a reminder that we are all called to serve, and to serve all, male and female.

    Mark VA: it may surprise you that progressive Catholics also take delight in things that are beautiful and well done. Their aesthetic standards are different, but they are still concerned with the true, the good and the beautiful.

  • Mark VA

    David Cruz-Uribe, you wrote:

    “Sounds like a bit of leakage from the debate relativism on a neighboring thread! :-)”

    Yep, I agree, you’re right – must be an emanation from my subconscious layer. I was tired when I wrote that.

    Actually, I was thinking you were going to correct me for writing “diameter” rather than “circumference”, but I see you let that slide. Another mark against my account, in the “clarity of definitions is paramount” department. Or are “diameter” and “circumference” interchangeable in this context?

  • elialuz

    Well, Nathan, you always amaze me with your wisdom, open-mindedness(is there such a word?) and agape for women. Jesus certainly has anointed you to go out to those who follow you over the Internet. I know that I read your commentaries and share them because you are open to the Spirit. Thank you. You are right, there are Traditions and traditions.