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Washing of Women's Feet on Holy Thursday?

And More on Preparing the Corporal for the Altar
by Father Edward McNamara | Source:
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Question 1: Is it proper to have holy water receptacles empty from Ash Wednesday on, through all of Lent? -- F.D., Scandia, Minnesota

Q-2: I have learned today about the Washing of the Feet ceremony at Mass in my parish on Holy Thursday. To take the place of the Twelve Apostles, we are to have six gentlemen and six ladies. I would welcome your comments about this innovation. -- M.R., Melbourne, Australia

Q-3: Each year I find it increasingly difficult to perform the washing of parishioners' feet at the celebration of the Lord's Supper because of stiffness in my knee joints which make it almost impossible to get back up on my feet when moving from one parishioner to the next. Is it permissible to delegate this function to an older server? -- C.D., Archdiocese of New York

Q-4: For the adoration of the cross on Good Friday, can we use a crucifix (with Jesus' body on it) or should we look for a plain cross? -- F.M., Antique, Philippines

Answer 1: The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments recently responded to a similar question (3/14/03: Prot. N. 569/00/L) giving a clear answer: "This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in particular, for two reasons:

"1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being 'praeter legem' is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.

"2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the sacraments is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The 'fast' and 'abstinence' which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church.

"The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday)."

A-2: The rubrics for Holy Thursday clearly state that the priest washes the feet of men ("viri") in order to recall Christ's action toward his apostles. Any modification of this rite would require permission from the Holy See.

It is certainly true that in Christ there is neither male nor female and that all disciples are equal before the Lord. But this reality need not be expressed in every rite, especially one that is so tied up to the concrete historical circumstances of the Last Supper.

A-3: The rite of the washing of feet is not obligatory and may be legitimately omitted. However, this is usually not pastorally advisable.

While the rite may not be delegated to a non-priest, a concelebrant may substitute the main celebrant for a good reason.

The rubrics describing this rite are limited to the essentials (selected men sit in a suitable place) and so allow for practical adaptations to the realities of place, time and circumstances.

Thus, taking the example of our Holy Father, as he has grown older, and less able to bend over, the seats of those whose feet he washed were first elevated so that he could continue to perform the rite. But in the last year or so he has been substituted by a cardinal.

Thus, if possible, the seats used by those whose feet are to be washed should be elevated, so that an elderly priest need not stoop too much.

If this solution is not feasible, I do not think it is contrary to the overall sense of the rite to find other practical solutions resulting in a similar effect, provided the rite be carried out with decorum.

A-4: The use of the crucifix, a cross with the figure of Christ crucified, is obligatory for the Good Friday celebrations of the Adoration of the Cross.

This is made clear by the rubrics which, in one form of the rite, describe how this cross may be progressively unveiled, showing first the top of the cross but not the face, then the right arm, and finally the entire body.

After this celebration on Good Friday afternoon, and until the Easter Vigil, Catholics genuflect before the crucifix; they would not do so before a simple cross.

This liturgical situation is different from the pious practice of the Way of the Cross, where widespread custom prefers the use of a simple cross rather than a crucifix. This is the practice followed in the Holy Father's widely televised Good Friday "Via Crucis" at the Colosseum.

* * *

Follow-up: Preparing the Corporal for the Altar

Thanks to the acute observation of a deacon from Florida I would like to refine my response regarding the correctness of an acolyte preparing the altar (March 9).

While I correctly quoted No. 139 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, I should have added that these functions are carried out only in the absence of a deacon. As stated in GIRM No. 178, if the deacon is present at Mass he "prepares the altar, assisted by the acolyte, but it is the deacon's place to take care of the sacred vessels himself" (see also GIRM, No. 190).

Correspondents from Australia and the United States questioned the propriety of bringing water along with the wine in the procession of the gifts, arguing that water is God's gift to us and is not, properly speaking, the "work of human hands."

While the argument is interesting I think that perhaps it goes too far in fine-tuning a practical rubric which, while echoing an ancient practice, in its present form is of relatively recent origin and from which we cannot draw too many theological conclusions.

Even so, there is clear evidence that in ancient times many natural gifts, such as grapes and even live birds, as well as other material objects such as oil, candles and precious vessels were brought in the offertory alongside the bread and wine intended for the sacrifice.

The practice of also bringing the water intended for the chalice is recorded as part of the offertory rites of seventh-century papal Masses.

In modern papal Masses, water is always brought alongside the wine in the offertory procession.

Likewise, water must always be added to the wine before pronouncing the prayer that offers it as "work of human hands."

Thus, while in overall agreement with our correspondents' principle that active participation is carried out "by accompanying the gift bearers, rather than having many people carry a surplus number of vessels," and recognizing that there is no obligation to bring water along with the wine in the procession, I personally see no practical or theological reason why it should be excluded.

Regarding another aspect of the March 9 column, a priest from Boston wrote: "In this parish, the tabernacle is in the sanctuary directly behind the altar, about four strides away. There is room to move between the altar and the tabernacle -- in fact, to get to the pulpit from the presider's chair, one must walk between altar and tabernacle. My question is: Do I bow to the altar or to the tabernacle when I cross the sanctuary? The current practice is to bow to the tabernacle."

As we mentioned previously, in general the tabernacle does not receive special attention during the celebration of Mass.

GIRM, No. 132, may help us. It states: "During the singing of the Alleluia or other chant, ... with hands joined, he [the priest] bows profoundly before the altar and quietly says, 'Munda cor meum' (Almighty God, cleanse my heart ...)."

The GIRM also specifies that after the bow the priest takes the Book of the Gospels if it has been laid on the altar at the beginning of Mass. Likewise, a bow would be made by a deacon before he takes up the Book of the Gospels (see GIRM, No. 175).

On the other hand, if the Book of the Gospels has not been laid on the altar the deacon goes directly from the chair to the ambo after receiving the priest's blessing, without pausing before the altar.

These directions would indicate that the correct posture in the situation described by our reader is to bow toward the altar even though the tabernacle is behind.

Based on the description given of the parish, however, I would say that, unless the Book of the Gospels is laid upon the altar, it would be liturgically preferable to make this bow in front of the altar, hence simultaneously facing both altar and tabernacle. This may mean taking a less direct route from the chair to the ambo. But it is usually more elegant and would be preferred even if there were no tabernacle present in the sanctuary.


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