As Catholics we are called to love one another. FATHER IGNATIUS YEO explains.

At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the symbolic action of the washing of the feet (also called mandatum), contains many layers of significance. The principal and traditional meaning of the Holy Thursday mandatum is the biblical injunction of Christian charity: Christ’s disciples are to love one another, thus the mandatum ritualises this action of Christ.

This commandment (English translation of mandatum) to love one another as Christ has loved us is given to all the baptised, those who are Christ’s disciples today.

At the instruction of Pope Francis, the rite of the washing of feet on Holy Thursday was modified to lawfully permit a wider representation of the people of God to take part in the ceremony. The Holy Father’s decision was made effective by a decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on January 6, 2016.

The Holy Father explained that his modification of the rubric in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper was to better reflect “the significance of the gesture Jesus performed in the Upper Room, giving himself to his disciples and ‘to the very end’ for the salvation of the world, his boundless charity.”

That is why this ritual reflects not only the command to complete and total service that is given to all those in ordained ministry as an imitation of Christ’s life of service, even to the point of death, but also the command given to all the faithful to love as Christ loved.

From this context then, we can look at some questions about this ritual.

What is the celebrant’s role in the washing of the feet?
The priest celebrant, should at least wash the feet of several persons as an example to the assembly of Christian love and service to connect his unique example of service with his role as presider over the Eucharist.

Must there be 12 persons selected to have their feet washed?
The rubrics does not indicate that 12 persons are to be chosen. Although the washing of the feet imitates Jesus’ act of love for His “twelve” on the night before He died, this ritual signifies their participation in Christ’s mission of love and service to one another and to those in need. Pope Saint John Paul II attests that this intent of the washing of the feet has to do with the “ministerial priesthood”.

Can men and women participate in the washing of the feet?
The Pope in 2016 permitted participants for the rite to be chosen “from among all members of the People of God.”

Can the faithful also participate in the washing of the feet?
Pope Francis by his own example underscores the significance of “the service that should be given by all the faithful to the Church and to the world”. Therefore, “the variation and custom of having both men and women participate in the washing of the feet is an understandable way of accentuating the evangelical command of the Lord, ‘who came to serve and not to be served,’ that all members of the Church must serve one another in love.” Thus, “both men and women, including children, may have their feet washed as well as participate by washing another’s feet.” (Statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on the Liturgy, 2017/1987)

Must you have your feet washed?
No one is required to participate in the ritual. The entire ritual is optional (see no.10 Roman Missal).

This article was first published in The Catholic News on Sunday April 7, 2019.