Learning New Stuff about Liturgy

Learning New Stuff about Liturgy April 4, 2012

Just a word for anybody who looks to me for Expert Commentary on Liturgy:


My attitude toward liturgy is that of an Irish peasant in 1875. Namely, what do I know? I have a strict scruple against advising the Church on how liturgy is to be done (because… what do I know?). My attitude to the liturgy is “Just give me my lines and my blocking”. Whatever Holy Church says is permissible is fine by me. Whatever she forbids is fine by me. Whatever she commands is fine by me.

Period. End of story.

Now, if you ask me what I make of the liturgy as an ordinary ignorant schlub out in the pew, I will happily give you my garrulous Irish opinion on What it Means to Me (which, with five bucks will get you cup of Starbucks). If you ask me a question about what the Church says about liturgy and I have time and inclination, I will try to dig up the USCCB or Vatican resource or point you to somebody (*cough* Jimmy Akin *cough*) who actually knows something. But mostly I avoid liturgy stuff because, hey! What do I know?

Earlier today, somebody wrote me looking for my take on the Holy Thursday footwashing thing. Since “What do I know” is my motto about liturgy, I went and found what seemed to be a magisterial resource and that document noted that it seems that lots of parishes include women in the rite. Moreover, as I mentioned in my response, the document on the USCCB site that mentions it appears to say that’s okay.

Now various readers are telling me that document is outdated (and doing so in various tones of voice ranging from the calm to the hysterical). If so, well, see my first two paragraphs. All I know is the document was on the USCCB site and I made a good faith effort to refer my reader to a magisterial source since, hey! What do I know? If there are more up to date treatments of the matter, I’d appreciate somebody sticking a URL in my combox.

A priest friend who is generally pretty reliable about these sorts of things tells me that, yes, Rome has not looked kindly on the washing women’s feet thing, but also notes that parishes have different ways of coping with it given the pastoral headache that this rite can create (“What do you mean my wife can’t participate?!” etc.). For one thing, there is always the option of just not doing it. It’s not essential to Holy Thursday.

Similarly, there are older forms of praxis. In Dominican circles, till the Council, it was done privately in the priory as the superior washed the feet of his fellow Dominicans. Getting laity in on the act at all is a pretty recent development for Dominicans (dunno about diocesan parishes). He also mentioned that when it has been done, he’s never in his life seen it done with men alone (at any parish, not just Dominican ones). That said, he’d prefer it done with men only.

He also mentioned that another strategy employed by some parishes is apparently to change the number of people whose feet are washed. That way, they aren’t recalling the 12 apostles, but are simply standing for generic disciples, male and female. Dunno how much the Church micromanages such things and, frankly, don’t much care. I like the rite itself (though I would never participate since my feet are way too ticklish). But since it’s entirely optional, I have no idea if the number of participants is entirely optional too, and therefore if there’s some way women can thereby participate. Don’t know. Don’t much care.

“You don’t much care! The horror! The horror!!!”

Remember: Me. Schlub in pew. Giving my subjective reaction to the liturgy. Not expert. Just schlub in pew. Like it or not, my subjective reaction to the extremely fine points of liturgical fussbudgetry is disinterest. Just give me my lines and my blocking. I look *along* the liturgy at God. I don’t tend to look *at* the liturgy in order to squint critically at whether the liturgist is up to my highly discriminating snuff. Why? Because what do I know?

It’s like going to a play. I’m not interested in the details of the embroidering on Hamlet’s costume or the brush strokes on the canvas backdrop of Elsinore Castle. Some people may be and that’s fine with me. I’m not. Hamlet nourishes me in other ways. The day may come when some friend of mine takes a class in theatre production and infectiously communicates his interest to me so that I do start to notice embroidery and paint strokes. But so far, no: I don’t care much about such details and instead receive the whole production in a much broader way.

One thing I *can* guarantee though. If my friend takes the class and then proceeds to hector me about how I am an embarrassment for reading a Cliff Notes on Hamlet (in a good faith effort to educate myself) –or chews me out as having contempt for all that is good and right because I trusted the Cliff Notes and did not read up on all the footnotes on in the Yale Complete Works of Shakespeare before having the unmitigated *gall* to see the play and formulate some schlubby thoughts in response–or tells me I am a manifest enemy of Western Civilization because I’m not interested in embroidery or set painting: well, I will be able to explain to that person why so few people are converted to liturgical fussbudgetry by these tactics.

If, on the other hand, somebody with knowledge calmly explains to me (as a good priest in the comboxes did), that the Cliff Notes I had was out of date and that other things have happened in Shakespeare scholarship since then, I’m quite willing to listen. I *like* the liturgy and I like learning about it. But the tendency of lay liturgy cops to prioritize precise liturgical accuracy over mercy and charity is the absolute number one reason I avoid discussions of liturgy like the plague.

The liturgy was made for man, not man for the liturgy. God does not need our worship. We need to worship God. We cannot do it well without good liturgy, it is true. But we also cannot do it well with a liturgy that is celebrated by people who strain at the gnat of liturgical precision and swallow the camel of anger, hyper-sensitivity, and presumption of bad faith against ordinary schlubs who have every intention of worshipping the Lord, but are not up to speed on hyper-obscure ecclesial documents.

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  • Ted Seeber

    My favorite version, but I’ve only seen it done this way once:
    Priest washes the feet of the Liturgical Minister, and the ExtraOrdinary Ministers of the Eucharist. I’ve never seen this limited to men, but I have seen it limited to 12 to symbolize the 12 apostles.

    THEN the congregation is invited up to wash one another’s feet, as they will, organically and small-t traditions abound.

    For myself, this never includes my wife, but does include my son, every year. Both me washing his feet, and him washing daddy’s feet. NOBODY ELSE can stand to look at my toenails- with good reason.

    • Okay, where is that permitted in the rubrics? Where does a priest — or a bishop, for that matter — get the authority to do this to the Mass.

      Down below, Mark spoke of reflexive distrust of the bishops leading to protestant chaos. Okay, fine. But “do-it-yourself” innovations like this lead to protestant chaos just as readily.

      And no, it is not being a self-deputized liturgy cop to say “WTF!” at things like this. The liturgy was made for man, not man for the liturgy, fine. But neither is the liturgy to affirm us in our narcissistic okayness, to borrow another Mark-ism.

      • Mark Shea

        I suspect that Ted, like most people, is not the person to ask those questions. I also suspect that among the right (or is it rite) people to ask, who are actually conversant in liturgical minutiae, there will be a variety of opinions on how malleable the rite is. But that’s just a suspicion since… what do I know?

      • I was responding to Ted’s post, but my question was not necessarily directed only at him. I am not liturgy expert either. I just wish people would stick to the script, as it were. To use your Hamlet analogy, if a director told his actors to just ad lib their way through the script, and they were fine with that, how would that affect your enjoyment of Hamlet?

        • S. Murphy

          Well, if the Mass were ad libbed every Sunday, that would be one thing. But Holy Thursday footwashing is more like ad libbing the action in the duel between Hamlet and Laertes. You wanna use foils? epees? You want to go on for 10 minutes and get an action scene? Jump on the table? Swing on the chandelier? Not necessarily gonna violate Shakespeare’s script, whether or not it’s over the top and suitable or unsuitable to the tone of the tragedy.

        • No, we’ve already established that the Roman Missal contains very specific directives about who may participate: men only. I guess you may ad lib by having it in the sanctuary or by the baptismal font of wherever, but the instruction from the Missal is that only men may get their feet washed.

  • Ted Seeber

    The other thing I think many people forget is that liturgy has not always been “The Vatican tells us what to do in the GIRM”. In fact, we’ve only had 3 editions of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and the Missal itself didn’t come into being until the 1200s or so. Which means, for more than half the life of the Holy Catholic Church, Liturgy has been bottom up- certain things were common, but most everything outside of the Eucharist and the Readings were *local customs* up until the 1200s.

    In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi came up with the idea that his friars should mimic the liturgy in use in Rome (Hmm, next time my liberal Franciscan parish is practicing a liturgical abuse and calling it “Franciscan Spirituality” I think I’ll mention this). Pope Gregory the Great liked the idea, but decided NOT to implement it universally, that task fell upon Pope Nicholas III nearly 55 years later.

    The first *real* missal, given by Church ecumenical Council, had to wait until the Council of Trent in 1570, then there was the 1604 edition, and the 1634 edition. It would then wait a couple of hundred years before being revised again, in 1884. The 20th century brought swift change, with revisions in 1920, 1951, 1955, 1962, 1965, 1967, 1969, and 2000 (Note, I’m only mentioning the changes to the LATIN RITE MISSAL- translations lagged behind these changes by a number of years, depending on language).

    So we have 14 official Latin Rite Revision Liturgies to choose from, plus the Eastern Rite liturgies, plus local customs that continued throughout all of this regardless of what the Vatican said or did.

    And people are complaining about ABUSE now?

    • Paladin

      “To be deep in history is to cease to be a RadTrad.”

    • You mischaractarize us, Ted, to ask “And people are comlaining about abuse now?”. Liturgical abuse is practically as old as the Church, and Paul wrote about it in his epistles.

      In fact, your argument with that last sentence seems to be, “We’ve always had liturgical abuse, so lets abuse things some more.”

      You are right that the Church did not really codify a universal missal for the Latin Rite until the Council of Trent, but that only begs the question: if a plethora of local missals and customs was okay, then why did the council fathers at Trent feel the need to issue a universal missal?

      I don’t think your dates in your third paragraph are all correct. The current missal in use for the Ordinary Form is the 2002 Roman Missal. I had no idea there were revisions in 1965, ’67, and ’69, and you left out 1970. Summorum Potificum specifies use of the 1962 Missal for the Extraordinary Form, which I thought was the last edition before the promulgation of the Novus Ordo in 1970.

      In the Latin Rite, we do not have ” 14 official Latin Rite Revision Liturgies to choose from.” We have two: the 1962 missal for the Extraordinary Form, and the 2002 missal for the Ordinary Form.

      • Ted Seeber

        “You are right that the Church did not really codify a universal missal for the Latin Rite until the Council of Trent, but that only begs the question: if a plethora of local missals and customs was okay, then why did the council fathers at Trent feel the need to issue a universal missal?”

        I should think the answer to that would be obvious- It was a reaction, possibly an overreaction, to the Protestant rebellion.

    • Telemachus


      Liturgy from the bottom-up is great in a world that isn’t saturated in modernism and various other ways of thinking that aren’t compatible with (and are even hostile to) the life of the Church. Unfortunately, there is a need to be quite wary of liturgical innovations in this day and age, and the best way to guard against losing our inherited faith is to listen to those who have been tasked with safeguarding it.

      Then again, it is also the case that those who have ostensibly been tasked with safeguarding the faith have sometimes given in to the temptation to introduce faith-damaging innovations. What are we to do then? This is where I disagree with Mark. We’re living in an age where we need to be aware of the degrees of legitimacy of the changes which appeared in the life of the Church after Vatican II, including in the liturgy. However, I don’t have a succinct answer to how what best comes to this awareness except to study the history of the Church and to listen principally to what Rome is saying over the statements of the USCCB. One can’t have all the answers, but one should gradually be able to distinguish well between good and bad answers.

      God bless,

      • Ted Seeber

        I guess it comes down to what the primary purpose of the liturgy (outside of the sacrament of the Eucharist) IS.

        And what lessons we’re trying to teach with it.

        I have NEVER considered the idea before today, that the scene of the footwashing in scripture was about the Holy Orders rather than about Charity.

        • S. Murphy


          I never really connected the footwashing to Holy Orders until reading about on Fr Z’s blog, oh, I dunno, last year. In college or grad school, I saw and participated in the ‘whoever volunteers’ or ‘everybody washes just about everybody’s feet’ once or twice, and like you, figured it was about loving and serving our neighbor. Now, tying it to Holy Orders, makes sense in that Jesus does this for the Apostles at the Last Supper, so, okay.

          If this is what Rome says the foot-washing is for – to show the priesthood as being about serving others, then our bishops and pastors should work towards clarifying that and bringing our parishes in line. In the meantime, people think that it’s about charity, and this is not bad or subversive or necessarily rebellious against the magisterium, either. It’s an innocent misunderstanding, at worst.

      • Paladin

        Ted, the world of the early Church was arguably more “saturated in modernism and various other ways of thinking that aren’t compatible with (and are even hostile to) the life of the Church” than today’s world:

        Manicheism, Marcion and Tertullian, all sorts of Paganism, including “feed the Christians to lions-ism,” Arianism (precursor to Unitarianism, as Chesterton I believe pointed out), Pelagianism, etc…

        It’s always been a dangerous world, physically and intellectually and spiritually. People who don’t think so are kidding themselves and end up making lame arguments in favor of immobilism and isolationalism.

        There is nothing new under the sun.

        • Paladin

          Sorry, that was obviously my response to Telemachus’s gloom and doom view, not to Ted.

    • Captain Peabody

      Wait…St. Gregory the Great in the 12th century? I think you’re getting your references confused or something. The Pope in 1223 was Honorius III. St. Gregory the Great had been dead for over five hundred years at that point.

      Likewise, there’s a biiiig difference between what you’re talking about and what a lot of people are talking about in terms of modern liturgical abuse. People then lived in very tradition-based societies; unless there was a realllly good reason, you just didn’t change the liturgy at all, and if you did, then you’d likely have an angry mob on your hands. The “popular, bottom-up” approach to liturgy is almost always to keep things exactly how they’ve always been; as someone I forget said, the religious impulse is almost always a conservative one. If the parish priest or diocesan bishop in those days started messing with the liturgy, the parishioners were going to get pissed.

      Basically, this resulted, at least in the West, in a fairly uniform liturgy, the Roman rite, with lots of small variations and smaller sub-“rites”; but a lot of those rites were very old, and most of them had behind them the legitimate authority of a famous and well-regarded bishop, or the founder of a religious order. There was no idea that it was okay for a given bishop, let alone a given priest, to simply change how the liturgy was celebrated when he felt like it.

      Likewise, what we’re talking about when we talk about a lot of these local customs and rites is more the difference between say, a modern NO church in Mexico and a NO church in New York, or a lot of the time less. You probably wouldn’t even notice the difference, since all of them would have Latin and Gregorian chant and ad orientem and rood screens and all the other things that you might consider to be the province of only “traditionalists.”

      In any event, the lack of liturgical discipline did, in some places, lead to actual liturgical abuse, and to some local customs that were either silly or just not well-founded in tradition, which is why the Council of Trent felt the need to codify the Roman rite, eliminate all local rites except for those a hundred or so years old, and make the codified Roman rite the main rite of the West. Once it did so, those who were under the Roman rite were required to follow its regulations. Period.

      Likewise, we certainly do not have the luxury of choosing whatever modification of the modern Roman rite we wish (and these modifications you bring up are practically all so tiny that 99% of people would never even notice them anyway). The bishops and the Pope have always had the competency over the liturgy, not the laity and not the diocesan clergy. We have the rites that are legitimate within the Catholic Church, and none others.

      • Ted Seeber

        You’re completely right. Right down to the fact it was Pope Gregory IX, in 1245, not Gregory the Great, who considered but rejected making the missal universal.

  • Johnb

    In our parish the priests (we have 3) will wash the feet of multiple parish members – more than 12, men, women, and children – and they will come to the person, instead of having them come forward and sit in front of the altar. I’ve seen it done many ways, but this is my favorite. It reflects more of what Jesus told us to do, rather than simply trying to replicate the scene from the Last Supper like it is a play.

  • Telemachus

    The only comment I have to make is that I can understand why people are worried about the abuse of the mandatum in the Holy Thursday liturgy.

    What is being argued is as follows:
    (1) The mandatum was meant to be a liturgical remembrance of the establishment of the priesthood, a priesthood granted to a select number of men of varying degrees of adulthood. (St. John was probably in his mid- to late-teens?)
    (2) Somehow, the mandatum started including women and children. What were the intentions of this innovation?
    (3) There appeared a post hoc explanation of why it is valid to include women and children, even though it significantly clouds the original emphasis of the mandatum. This explanation was given a nod of approval by the USCCB.
    (4) Rome has not looked kindly at this innovation, but to no avail.

    So one is validly left wondering whether or not the present practice of including women and children in the mandatum is a legitimate innovation or not. If one has the original understanding in mind (establishment of priesthood) then the inclusion of women and children is confusing at best, and damaging to the faith at worst.

    On the other hand, if one has the understanding that the practice is simply a reenactment of “Jesus being nice,” then including women and children is probably not that bad. I think most Catholics have the latter understanding (and I, admittedly, did until just recently), which is unfortunate, because the original understanding is much more meaningful.

    God bless,

    • Mark Shea

      I suspect for most people (and I know in my case) that the footwashing was not particularly connected with the establishment of the priesthood, but was rather connected with “Love one another. As I have done so must you also do.” In short, what is in view for most laypeople is Jesus as Servant King, not as Great High Priest. So I highly doubt most people see it as an attack on the male priesthood. It certainly never occurred to me. Just as it never occurred to anybody that including children means we should ordain children.

      • Paladin

        The footwashing, as the O.E.D. points out, was a rite done for the poor in the parish, and often included the giving of gifts in the Middle Ages. It would seem, then, that the rite had more to do with charity and less to do with the establishment of the priesthood even back then.

        • Paladin

          This is interesting: in the Middle Ages, priests were not the only ones who washed feet on this day: royal and noble persons did so too. In fact, there’s a record of a Duchess washing the feet of many poor women in 1502:

          “To the Quene for xxxvijti pore women every woman iijs. jd. for hir maunday upon Shire Thursday.”

          This suggests to me that this is an argument with a lot of heat and little light.

          • Paladin

            Actually, it may have been the Queen doing the washing.

            “The distribution of gifts of money has been part of the Royal Maundy ceremony in England since the 13th cent. By the 16th cent. a specific amount of money and a purse to hold it had become part of the ceremony…”

            Again, if the rite was mainly for poor people, and celebrated by both priests and secular figures, it would seem to be more about charity than the institution of the priesthood.

          • Ted Seeber

            This is a meaning of the word “Shire” I have not come across before.

            • Paladin

              In the early Church, women also washed feet:

              “Christ’s command to wash one another’s feet must have been understood from the beginning in a literal sense, for St. Paul (I Tim., v, 10) implies that a widow to be honoured and consecrated in the Church should be one “having testimony for her good works, if she have received to harbour, if she have washed the saints’ feet”. ”

              – From CE

              Here’s the verse:

              “Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years old, married only once, with a reputation for good works, namely, that she has raised children, practiced hospitality, washed the feet of the holy ones, helped those in distress, involved herself in every good work.”

              • Yes, and in the 1200’s, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, wife of the Landgrave (or count) of Thuringia, washed the feet of poor lepers on Holy Thursday.

              • But did she do it in Mass, Lori, or as a pious custom on that day, outside of Mass? I don’t care who does it or to whom outside of Mass. My concern is adhering to what the Missal says for Mass.

        • Paladin, there is no indication from that excerpt from Timothy, or its context, that Paul’d advice had anything to do with Mass.

          Additionally, there is no lamer argument for lirurgical practice than saying, “But it was done in the early Church/Middle Ages/a long time ago.” Unless you know and understand and can explain — without bias — why a practice was suppressed, and can effectively refute the reason for it being suppressed, then justifying its revival on the grounds that it was done in the early Church has no meaning.

          • Ted Seeber

            If antiquity is lame, why bother with staying Catholic at all? Why not just go with the liturgy of the latest TBN televangelist to come down the pike?

            I want my liturgy to have *both* meaning to my local community *AND* a touchstone to the ancient church.

          • Paladin


            But there is no evidence anything I mentioned was suppressed.

            Rather, practices fluctuated and there were local variations, and things passed and came into existence all the time.

            From the point of view of history, Mark is right: this is not a big deal.

            And it is clear the footwashing has more to do with charity, historically, then the establishment of the priesthood. While the pope, in the 9th century, washed the feet of 12 deacons, he also washed the feet of 13 poor people. This rite, for the most part, whether practiced by priests or secular rulers, was about the poor, plain and simple. Hence the gift-giving that accompanied it.

            Anyway, before you or anyone else gets out of sorts with Mark or the priests for doing this, show me a document from Rome condemning this practice and telling the American bishops to stop it as an abuse. Or a document from the bishops doing the same.

            If this widespread practice is the travesty people are making it out to be, surely there must be such a communication.

          • I didn’t say antiquity is lame, Ted. I said the argument, “They did it in the old days, so it’s okay to do it today” is lame. Pleae don’t misrepresent what I say.

            Palidin, do your own homework.

            Now, maybe I should clarify, because people seem to be confused about what I’m saying. As far as footwashing goes, I have no problem with what people do as pious customs outside of Mass. In fact, I think that it’s a worthy deed, to wash the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday, men and women.

            It’s what happens in Mass that I’ve been arguing about the past two days, not what happens outside of Mass. And the current edition of the Roman Missal says that the foot-washing must be done by a priest, and that only men may get their feet washed.

            Listing all the variations and customs of history is nice, but irrelevant. The Roman Missals says what it says. If you have a problem with it, take it up with the Holy See.

    • Interesting, Mark. I am exactly the opposite. Since the ceremony is done in the Mass on Holy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper, at which Jesus established the priesthood, then I connected the washing of the feet solely with the establishement of the priesthood. Obviously this does not exclude the representation of Jesus’ commandment to “Love one another” (as if the establishment of the priesthood and “love one another” could ever be mutually exclusive), but for me that fits within the larger context of the establishment of the priesthood.

      Those times when I’ve seen women included in the foot-washing (at my parish, it’s men only), I didn’t see it as an attack on the priesthood so much — being unable to see into a priest’s heart or mind to read his motives — as just an act of disobedience to the rubrics. In other words I stuck with what I could see, not what I thought the priest might be thinking or feeling.

      As I said above, all I ask is that the priest (and liturgists) stick to the script, which is not asking too much.

      • Ted Seeber

        Jesus established the priesthood at the last Supper? I thought it was Matthew 28:16-20, after the resurrection. I’m aware of the concept that he established the EUCHARIST at the Last Supper, but the Priesthood?

        Then again, being only 41, I’m part of the “Lost Generation”, those Catholics catechised without a catechism.

      • Yes, Jesus established the priesthood at the Last Supper, as well as the Eucharist.

        • Ted Seeber

          Where does this idea come from? Can you give me a source? Like I said, I never heard this before today, not in 41 years of being Catholic.

          • Brock

            I’m sure there are people here who can cite much older sources, but the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper is made explicit in the Council of Trent. When Our Lord instituted the Eucharist and then said, “Do this in memory of me,” He at that point gave them both the command and the ability to carry out that command: the power to confect the Eucharist, i.e. the priesthood.

        • Ted, I’ve heard it in almost every Holy Thursday homily as far back as I can remember, and I’m 46. In other words I grew up in the same era of poor catechesis as you did.

          Here it is, mentioned in the Catechism: “1337 The Lord, having loved those who were his own, loved them to the end. Knowing that the hour had come to leave this world and return to the Father, in the course of a meal he washed their feet and gave them the commandment of love.163 In order to leave them a pledge of this love, in order never to depart from his own and to make them sharers in his Passover, he instituted the Eucharist as the memorial of his death and Resurrection, and commanded his apostles to celebrate it until his return; “thereby he constituted them priests of the New Testament.”164”

          The citation from the footnote is from the Council of Trent.

  • I will say it again: since this is an optional rite–I stress, optional–then I see no reason to change it. If the rite as called for is somehow not acceptable, then simply omit it.

    Is this a huge deal? By itself? No. But this isn’t merely a question of one ritual being adjusted. It’s in the context of the liturgy, as a whole, being treated as malleable. That is a large problem, of which this is a relatively small manifestation.

    Either the liturgy is something we create or re-create as it resonates with us; or else the liturgy is something Christ does through us, and we approach it with fear and trembling. It’s not that these things can’t ever change; but the decision belongs to the bishops, unless they delegate it–which they haven’t in this case.

    Meanwhile, I remind folks that the first time God’s People formed a liturgy committee and came up with liturgy they found more meaningful, didn’t go well. It involved a golden calf.

    • Mark Shea

      As is my custom, I will take your word for it, Father. 🙂

    • Father Fox, I *love* the golden calf bit. I’m going to have to remember that one.

      I do think that the foot washing on Holy Thursday is supposed to reflect the institution of Holy Orders, and that something is lost when when the radical instruction to His first bishops to love one another as He has loved them gets translated in liturgical action to “Jesus was nice. You be nice too.” (apologies to Kevin O’Brien.)

      In fact, I think Our Lord was going out of His way to show His first clergy that they were NOT to be like the Pharisees, looking down on the common people and laying upon them burdens which they could not carry; they were to carry the same burdens, and perform the most humble service to the least wailing child–not washing the baby’s feet, but pouring upon his head the cleansing waters of Baptism. So the symbolism of twelve men would be a good thing to retain, it seems to me.

      However, I also have some of Mark’s attitude. If the bishops are being disobedient by permitting the washing of women’s feet (children are also technically not allowed) that’s their problem, and they’re the ones who will answer for it. I’m not going to glare at the priest on Holy Thursday or any woman who gets her feet washed for “doing it wrong” when it’s not my job to fix these sorts of things nor to judge the hearts or minds of those who participate in them. If asked, I’m happy to point people in the direction of those who really know the rubrics and can offer charitable correction, but I’ve not been asked very often (and our choir director thankfully explained years ago that since the choir sings during the foot-washing we really can’t spare choir members to join in, so that was that). To cultivate a corrosive anger over liturgical irregularities is to poison one’s own soul, something I know from sad experience.

      • I agree about restraining ones anger.

        Keep in mind the conscience of a priest, who believes this is wrong, yet is expected to do it. Hence my decision that I simply will omit it, if ever it becomes a bone of contention.

        If someone attends Mass on Holy Thursday and is unhappy about whose feet are not washed, that person’s conscience is not harmed. A priest’s might be.

        • This is a great point, Father, and one reason why I hold bishops accountable for these matters–no priest should have to chose between obeying his bishop and obeying Rome, in matters where Rome has set rules.

          When the bishops lead rightly on the liturgy, so much good can result! Of course, I have some sympathy for them, too–when things have been done incorrectly for 40+ years it’s hard to insist on doing what is right when the result will be lots of complaining from the laity, especially if they’ve never heard the reasons for the correct practice.

        • Eric

          It appears to me that one could say that the washing of the feet could also be understood in the event of Mary’s using of her traditional long hair in the washing of Jesus’ feet (which Judas complained about). I don’t believe that Mary understood the significance of what she was doing at the time she did it, which Jesus hinted at in his justification to Judas.

          Women serve the church and are members of the church in their respective role. Therefore I believe that it is important that their feet be washed. However, the priest traditionally fills the masculine role in the church, which if I’m not mistaken is why why the role is given exclusively to men (even though we know priests are in their relationship with God and the Church, both feminine and masculine).

          Therefore it appears to me that it would be liturgically acceptable to have priests wash the feet of all church members, but not to have women do the washing of the feet.

    • Erin, thank you for your comments. You are always worth reading.

      However, I take exception to your remark that we “judge the hearts or minds” of priests who commit liturgical abuse, or glare at priests and participating laypeople who don’t follow the rubrics. In fact I wrote in this very combox that I stick with what I can see, not with what I think the priest or others may be thinking or feeling.

      Judging others’ hearts and minds is awful, whether it’s done by those who complain about liturgical abuse, or by those who complain about those who complain about liturgical abuse.

      • Well, Sean, that’s why I said that *I* am not going to glare, etc., not that all those who care about these things are going to glare, etc.–no judgment intended nor implied. Let’s go back to your Hamlet example: I’ve learned that if the ad-libbers are an enthusiastic volunteer troop (think: lay congregation) it’s not going to be productive to direct my annoyance with the play at them. Find the director, the producer, the theater-owner, etc., and express my distaste for the production politely and calmly, and then move on, so to speak: at least, that’s what I’ve learned to do.

        Here’s a serious question: if the only Holy Thursday Masses in one’s area are going to include female foot-washing, is it better to attend Mass anyway or skip it (Mass not being an obligation that day)? Each person has to decide that for himself. For me, female foot washing is something to sigh about a little and wish for change–but I did slip out of a Mass quietly during a “congregational foot washing” incident some fifteen years ago, when my oldest daughter was as yet our only child. There were three good reasons: I was truly startled, shocked even, when everyone started removing shoes and socks and rolling up their pant legs as giggling parishioners started handing out water basins–I’d never seen or heard of this before; there was no way to refuse to participate without making a scene; and it was past my the baby’s bedtime anyway (and it was clear that the shenanigans were going to prolong Mass much longer than merely not using Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion does). I’m not saying that leaving during Mass was the best bet, but when baby is at any given time during an evening Mass only seconds away from meltdown mode and then a communal foot-splashing party breaks out, one isn’t always thinking clearly.

        • Terentia

          Sunday, during the announcements, our priest “reminded” everyone to come to Mass on Thursday wearing appropriate footware to facilitate the communal footwashing. I will be skipping Holy Thursday celebrations again this year. I am an unmarried woman and do not believe it is appropriate to have my feet washed as a public show.

        • Erin, I agree with you that the people are not necessarily to blame, especially if they’ve been poorly catechized.

          On your question, it would take a lot to get me to leave Mass, even when Mass is not obligatory. I have no idea what’s going to happen tonight. For years, my parish has had men-only foot washing, but we have a different priest this year and it’s anybody’s guess as to what he’ll do. If he includes women, I’ll grit my teeth and put up with it (and pray for the priest). But if it turns into a narcissistic free-for-all, well, then, I may have a hard decision to make.

  • Cantorboy

    Once upon a time you were a Protestant. Then you became a Catholic. Recently you announced that you had become a Scientologist. Now you have become a Know-Nothing.
    Where will this end?
    By the way, may I humbly petition your Exalted Schlubness for membership in the Fraternal Order of Ordinary Schlubs? I would dearly love to add the coveted FOOS credential to my name. I promise to wear my “Hey! What do I know?” T-shirt to all liturgical services (and eat every spoonful of thin watery gruel served up in the Pits of Despair without complaint).

    • c matt


      PS – I tried to leave my comment at just “LOL” but I got the following error message: Comment too short, please try again. Is that a blogosphere first?!?

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    The ancient practice among pious observant Jews is that men, especially rabbis, don’t touch women except their own wives or other very close relative.

    This is why even today Orthodox Jewish men avoid shaking a woman’s hand, even in a business setting.

    It’s not that women are unclean, or impure; it’s to do with modesty and reticence toward members of the opposite sex. A man would avoid prolonged eye contact with a woman not his wife, would avoid touching or being touched by her, would avoid being alone with her in a secluded area.

    And until very recently the strictest usage among Catholic priests would be to refrain from touching a woman, or being touched by one, or to be alone with her, except to administer the sacraments.

    There is much wisdom in these ancient observances; I believe it is more suitable that priests wash the feet of men only.

    • Rosemarie


      This is something I’ve wondered about re. the mandatum. After the horrible priest molestation scandal and all the press it received over the past decade, is it really a good idea for Catholic priests to publicly wash the feet of women *and children*? This obviously involves touching their feet and so could very well cause more scandal. Yes, I know it’s a public rite during a liturgy, nothing scandalous happens and “to the pure all things are pure,” but the world has a dirty mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if anti-Catholics (both secular and fundamentalist) start joking about priests having “foot fetishes” because of this.

  • Never get so caught up in liturgical arguments, Mr. Shea, that you lose sight of the important things in life, like neotenous cats: http://waffles-the-cat.tumblr.com/

    • Mark Shea

      Wise, wise words.

  • Ted Seeber

    Speaking of the conscience of the priest, it reminds me of a story I once heard:

    An explorer in the jungles of South America came across an odd sight int he middle of the jungle; a watermelon patch. Searching around a bit he found a Jesuit missionary, who was serving a local native village. Curious, he asked “Fr., why did you plant watermelons?” “My son, it’s the only fruit the natives won’t steal- because there’s a red fleshed fruit around here that is poison, so the red flesh of the watermelon is taboo to them”. “But haven’t you been teaching them to read and understand the 10 commandments, so they won’t steal?” “READ? I only got them to stop eating their human enemies last week!”

    The moral of this story is in a fallen world, sometimes we have to meet people where they are. Even the people right next to us in the pew. While this is a liturgical abuse that happens in my own parish, there’s a certain group of women that we only got to pray the Nicene Creed right just this last December (for they objected to referring to God as Father- seeing that as sexist). I can easily imagine the problems they’d raise over using the foot washing ceremony to preach a male-only priesthood when half of them belong to the dissident group One Spirit One Call.

    • Peter M

      Amen. I work as a Pastoral Associate for two parishes sharing a good, orthodox priest, and it’s still baby steps all the way. A large percentage of our local population are CAPE Catholics (Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Easter), who need serious catechesis and have a lot of misconceptions about the Faith and the Church. We do the feet-washing because it’s a beautiful custom, and because it says so in the Missal we try to get only men; but it’s not a large crowd at Holy Thursday and most people don’t want to have their feet washed, so we generally end up with some women and children as well. Seeing as the feet-washing connotes Christ’s command to love one another for most people (I seriously doubt anyone is thinking “women priests!”), we exercise pastoral discretion for now. On the other hand, a sign-up sheet with “men only” on it would confirm a lot of peoples’ half-formed prejudices before we have the chance to undermine them.

      And then someone who reads Fr. Z or Rorate Caeli excitedly comes up and starts to be a “squeaky wheel for Christ”, and I have very little chance of successfully explaining this to them, because to them the whole thing stinks to high heaven of modernist conspiracy.

  • Dan C

    Ms. Manning,

    It is a bit extreme and in fact a little snotty to consider that the understanding of Christ as “Servant King” is about a conservative’s distorted caricature of liberalism. (“be nice”- this borders on ridiculing someone). In fact, lay conservativism could afford a little lesson or two about this radical understanding.

    2. I think the presumption that bishops are doing it wrong because (insert conservative theory about liberal bishops here) is another bad faith approach.

    I am all about showing up and presuming the experts responsible are doing their best with good intentions. I do not immediately assume that priests and bishops are doing as they do from some extreme ideology. I have too much I my own business to “mind” to judge the bishops.

  • Steve H.

    You should’ve known that the issue has already been settled by another Irish peasant:


    • Ted Seeber

      I want to like Voris, but so many of his ideas seem to come from a “Republican Catholic” standpoint- with more emphasis on the Republican than on the Catholic. In other words he’s very partisan.

      • c matt

        That may be true. But it may also be that he only hits on those issues/abuses that seem most prevalent in the RC world which Dems happen to support more than Reps. In particular, abortion, contraception, etc.

        If clergy were failing in the instruction on just war, for example, I would hope he would harp on that. It would then seem he was a Dem partisan (assuming the Dems were better on this issue than Reps). But for the vast majority of clergy, preaching in favor of unjust war (or ignoring unjust was) does not seem to be a problem.

  • Steve H.

    Pilla washing the feet of a future cardinal:


  • Our parish had so much trouble finding volunteers to have their feet washed, it finally gave up. We haven’t had that ritual for years. Don’t miss it.

  • caroline

    I’ve always thought of the foot washing by Our Lord as His delivering an action parable rather than a word parable. And foot washing was of practical use in His time although not in our time. I would get rid of the foot washing business entirely on Holy Thursday and find a useful work of service for everyone in the congregation to do at a convenient time such as perhaps early in the morning, for example scrubbing the sidewalk outside of the church with particular attention to ground in chewing gum. Humble, really useful service to contemporary people is what I think Our Lord was trying to demonstrate. At the foot washing ceeremonies I’ve witnessed, never have priests lugged out the water, removed it, cleaned up the spills, washed out the basins, and laundered the towels. Old nuns or just old women do that. They are the ones who have gotten the message.

  • jrff

    My opinion is that if liturgy is above a minimum standard then it is impious for the laity to criticise it. I don’t set the bar particularly high either.

    Trouble is, most masses and other liturgies during the past 40 years have been SO abysmal as to fall far below it. I myself can bring myself be at peace with a terrible parish mass and devoutly “look for the Baby Jesus under the trash” (to paraphrase U2) but will my children?

  • Mark:

    I’m not interested in giving you a hard time over this, insofar as some have beat you about the head and shoulders already, but…

    I was thinking about your stance on this: you’re a “schlub in the pew” on this. And I think that’s not quite right.

    You are also a fairly prominent author and–most importantly–a Catholic apologist. And–may I add–you do a fine job of it and generate really good stuff explaining and defending the Faith.

    So here’s the thing: as you will readily agree, the liturgy is a part of the Faith. Indeed, our Eastern brethren, and our present holy father, have made the point powerfully that the liturgy is far more important to the expression, and safeguarding, of the Faith than many of us in the West seem to realize. We in the West have often focused on lots of other aspects of the Faith, and treated the liturgy as, if not an afterthought, but as something in a different category.

    Well, as you know, our history is littered with episodes where, the very area we took for granted or didn’t tend to, is where the noxious weeds spring up. And I think a good argument can be made that this has happened in the liturgy in recent decades. Further, I think a good argument can be made that this has had more harmful effects on the Faith than is readily apparent. (These are arguments I assume you are familiar with, so I don’t mean to tell you things you already know–only to lay the predicates for my final point.)

    So…all that leads me to think that perhaps the “schlub” stance won’t quite work? If we were talking about even a relatively small aspect of, say, Marian doctrine, I’m wondering if you would take the same stance? See what I’m getting at?

    Anyway, food for thought. Not that I mean to suggest you aren’t already working very hard at the good work you do. But–you did allow comments! I mean this one to be offered in charity. May you have a blessed Triduum!

    • Mark Shea

      Thanks, Father. However, I’m sticking to my approach. There are, in fact, lot of areas of Catholic theology where I simply don’t comment or, as here, try to refer people to those who know more than me. So, for instance, I am reluctant to give moral theology lessons, since I have no training. My comments tend to be on issues that are extremely obvious: murder is bad, torture is bad, homosex is not the source and summit of all good, etc. I stay away from advising people on their sex lives or jobs or all the stuff that comes up in confession. I also refer people elsewhere for information on the complexities of marriage. I also don’t talk much about the papacy, simply because I haven’t given it much thought beyond, “Looks like the Catholic picture is sound”. I also don’t presume to talk about fine tuned details of Catholic history, or patristics, or any number of other things, because hey! What do I know?

      Same with liturgy. I have an allergy to liturgical discussions. In my experience they are almost uniformly destructive because they are conducted by angry people who know a thing or two and are convinced the Church is a conspiracy, not the Body of Christ. No thanks. Let people who have actual sober training deal with it. Web discussions of liturgy are virtually always poison. And my ignorance will only make it worse.

      That said, have a blessed Triduum!

  • Ryan Carruth

    A couple points:

    1. I can appreciate your approach, Mark, because it is one I admire but often fail to imitate. Obviously, we ought to be humble, and liturgical theology in its full breadth is deep and complex. Even so….

    2. Basic liturgical knowledge is readily available. And not some deep, obscure, esoteric view of liturgy — but rather, simple catechesis on its biblical roots and philosophical underpinnings, its symbols and effects, and so on. An example of such a simple course is Dr. Brant Pitre’s “The Bible and the Mass,” a scriptural theology course available on CD. It’s deep, but firmly rooted in scripture and tradition.

    It’s not that we have to all become liturgists — heaven forbid! — but, some catechesis on the matter is readily available. Given that the faithful are encouraged to confront abuses in the liturgy (cf. Sacramentum Redemptionis) in a respectful, humble way — some knowledge is necessary! So, I don’t think we have to take the “schlub” approach (although I recognize and admire your stance, as I said). I think there’s a middle road: a humble recognition of our own inadequacies while still maintaining a firm grasp of our liturgical “right” (again, cf. Sacramentum Redemptionis) to an “authentic liturgy.”

    God keep us from being either mice or monsters in this regard!

  • Ryan Carruth

    **In addition to “The Bible and the Mass,” a simple read through “The Spirit of the Liturgy” by Cardinal Ratzinger (PB XVI) would prove useful in dispelling some common misconceptions and provide a sound foundation for understanding liturgy.

    My point being, it’s like Aquinas said about becoming a saint: if you want to understand liturgy, you only have to will it! (No schlubdom necessary)

    • Mark Shea

      Oh, I understand the liturgy alright (in a mortal human way). I understand Dickens too. But don’t ask me to advise Dickens on how to write. Lay liturgy cops are a plague and a scourge on the Church, in my experience. We don’t need me joining the Force.

  • Ryan Carruth

    I see your point, and I sympathize with it. Particularly the one you made in the OP:

    “But the tendency of lay liturgy cops to prioritize precise liturgical accuracy over mercy and charity is the absolute number one reason I avoid discussions of liturgy like the plague.”

    Again, this is certainly something I’ve been guilty of, at least in my heart. Still, I’m at a loss with how to deal with “Redemptionis Sacramentum:

    “[183.] In an altogether particular manner, let everyone do all that is in their power to ensure that the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist will be protected from any and every irreverence or distortion and that all abuses be thoroughly corrected…
    [184.] Any Catholic, whether Priest or Deacon or lay member of Christ’s faithful, has the right to lodge a complaint regarding a liturgical abuse to the diocesan Bishop or the competent Ordinary equivalent to him in law, or to the Apostolic See on account of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.”

    For instance, I recently approached the chaplain at the school I teach at regarding his practice of inviting the congregation up around the altar. I did my homework and approach him with a letter detailing the issues I thought it raised and how it truly harmed my participation in the liturgy (and reverence for Christ in the Eucharist!). It was all handled with great charity on his part, and has since been ceased.

    I don’t bring this up to justify being a constant “squeaky wheel,” but, again, I think there’s a balance to be struck, in which the laity DO have the obligation to speak out against abuses, and should not merely consign themselves to schlumdom as the liturgy is degraded or corrupted.

  • Alan Stout

    A few notes on the Dominicans’ liturgy, etc.
    Based on my reading of Bonniwell (the most thorough of the dominican historians that I could find…in English) it appears that they were less interested in anything that the Franciscans were doing and more interested in forming a distinct rite that could be universalized. The early Dominican charism was less mendicant and more canons regular. Chances are that they would have practiced the rite at their local chapter house and they would have done the rite according to their own custom. Their custom, (again citing Bonniwell) would have been a version of the Roman Rite of the 12th century as practiced in Rome, and imported uniquely by St. Dominic…I know that says nothing of how dominicans would have acted at individual parishes (my guess is that it would depend on the parish).

    For Footwashing: In Milan with Ambrose in the 4th century, footwashing held the status of a rite of initiation, i.e. baptism AND footwashing AND Anointing AND Eucharist. Just noting that it was a rite of initiation from a very early age. Even if the footwashing rite became associated with only a clerical rite, i.e. It is not difficult to see how footwashing would have been appropriated by the Roman rite of the 12th century, especially in a clerical mode, i.e. washing feet of clerics as opposed to laity. In a city where every other person you meet is a Bishop, it kinda works. Modern practice, in line with the intentions of Vatican II, would emphasize a retrieval of the more ancient practice. Therefore, unless the Dominicans are doing holy thursday according to their own rite, they should probably focus more on the retrieval of the earlier practice.