The Holy Father broke convention in 2013 when he washed women prisoners' feet

Pope Francis has issued a decree changing the way that the Holy Thursday foot-washing rite is celebrated around the world.

The decree was published today by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and signed by prefect Cardinal Robert Sarah.

The decree says that the rite should no longer be limited to men.

The Vatican website has published a letter from Pope Francis to Cardinal Sarah confirming the changes.

The letter, written in Italian, says that the Pope made the changes “so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus’s gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity”.

The Pope continues: “After careful consideration, I have decided to make a change to the Roman Missal. I therefore decree that the section according to which those persons chosen for the washing of the feet must be men or boys, so that from now on the Pastors of the Church may choose the participants in the rite from among all the members of the People of God. I also recommend that an adequate explanation of the rite itself be provided to those who are chosen.”

Francis broke convention on the first Holy Thursday after his papal election in 2013, when he washed the feet of women prisoners.

In practice, many parishes around the world have long included women in the rite.

The foot-washing rite is known as the Mandatum, after the first word of Jesus’s saying in John 13:34 before he washed his disciples’ feet: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another”).

The rite was celebrated separately to the Holy Thursday Mass before Pope Pius XII restored it in 1955.

The rubric for the washing of the feet in force until today read: “After the homily, where a pastoral reason suggests it, the Washing of Feet follows. The men who have been chosen (viri selecti) are led by the ministers to seats prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each one, and, with the help of the ministers, pours water over each one’s feet and then dries them.”

According to the decree, the rubric will now read “Those chosen from among the People of God” instead of “The men who have been chosen”.

According to the Vatican Information Service, the decree says: “The reform of the Holy Week, by the decree Maxima Redemptionis nostrae mysteria of November 1955, provides the faculty, where counselled by pastoral motives, to perform the washing of the feet of twelve men during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, after the reading of the Gospel according to John, as if almost to represent Christ’s humility and love for His disciples.

“In the Roman liturgy this rite was handed down with the name of the Mandatum of the Lord on brotherly charity in accordance with Jesus’ words, sung in the Antiphon during the celebration.

“In performing this rite, bishops and priests are invited to conform intimately to Christ who ‘came not to be served but to serve’ and, driven by a love ‘to the end’, to give His life for the salvation of all humankind.

“To manifest the full meaning of the rite to those who participate in it, the Holy Father Francis has seen fit to change the rule by in the Roman Missal (p.300, No. 11) according to which the chosen men are accompanied by the ministers, which must therefore be modified as follows: ‘Those chosen from among the People of God are accompanied by the ministers’ (and consequently in the Caeremoniale Episcoporum No. 301 and No. 299 b referring to the seats for the chosen men, so that pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God. This group may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and the old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and lay people.

“This Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, by means of the faculties granted by the Supreme Pontiff, introduces this innovation in the liturgical books of the Roman Rite, recalling pastors of their duty to instruct adequately both the chosen faithful and others, so that they may participate in the rite consciously, actively and fruitfully.”

In a statement, the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales said: “This decree can be seen as a concession to existing practice, and its good intentions are evident. It nevertheless undermines attempts to ‘resacralise’ the Ordinary Form, and it reinforces the trend which has seen priests increasingly surrounded by women during Mass, serving, doing the readings, and as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. This inevitably makes the all-male priesthood itself harder to understand.

“Liturgical conservatives who have sought in recent decades to keep the rules of the Roman Missal by admitting only men to the ceremony of the Mandatum, often in the face of considerable pressure, may well feel the rug has been pulled from under them by this decree. This has happened many times, as Rome has felt unable to hold the line on liturgical abuses, and has simply allowed them: notably female altar servers and Communion in the hand.

“These concessions have moved many to reconsider the Extraordinary Form, which is not affected by this decree, or similar concessions to liturgical abuses in the past. It is in the Extraordinary Form that the Church’s liturgical traditions are maintained.”

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