In many Catholic parishes on Holy Thursday, a footwashing ritual is incorporated into Mass. Although optional, most parishes choose to do it, for it is a most powerful symbol in the present day, just as it is a powerful symbol at its Scriptural roots in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, when Jesus himself washes his disciples’ feet.
But a symbol of what? The most obvious answer is that the footwashing ritual is a symbol of humble service, given the extreme indignity involved in washing feet in the ancient world, a task usually reserved for the lowest slave of the house. Indeed, Jesus’ own explicit words seem to present it as such: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:14-15).
However, some see the footwashing ritual not as a symbol of service but a symbol of exclusion serving to reinforce patriarchy, for when done according to the Church’s rubrics, only the feet of males are to be washed. The question, then, concerns why the rubrics for the ritual command that viri selecti—“chosen males”—have their feet washed, and not women.
Basis for Holy Orders
The answer is that the footwashing scene in the Gospel of John is not only meant to be an example of humble service, but primarily a record of the institution of the Christian priesthood and thus the Scriptural root of the sacrament of holy orders.
Interpreting Scripture for its moral import is the default approach for most novice readers and many professional interpreters of Scripture, as it’s the easiest way to read the Bible and seems to make the Bible relevant. Many readers ask what a particular passage might mean regarding how they are to live in the present. So, when encountering important figures in the Bible, the first instinct of many is to ask: How am I like Herod? Abraham? Mary? How should I emulate the good guys? How should I imitate Christ? What would Jesus do?
Reading the Gospels this way can reduce the disciples to positive examples or (more often, given the honest portrayal of their failings) negative foils. What is often overlooked is that the apostles are a special class unto themselves. They are not just disciples like all Christians are disciples; they are unique. Jesus chooses twelve of them for a reason, to suggest that the Church they will lead will continue the redemptive work of Israel’s twelve tribes in the world. In Catholic (and Orthodox) understanding, the disciples are the first priests and bishops, and thus what Jesus says to them and does with them may not be of direct exemplary relevance for all Christians. For instance, when Jesus gives Peter alone the keys to the kingdom in Matthew 16, it does not mean that every Christian has the keys to the kingdom and the power to bind and loose.
Something more than mere exemplarism is going on in John 13. Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet has sacerdotal significance; Jesus institutes the priesthood. In John 13:3-8 we read:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “Unless (ean mē) I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”
Jesus’ reply to Peter, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand”, suggests that more is going on than just a moral example, for the ritual can only be understood “afterward.” After what? His glorification, as made clear in John 13:1-2, as well as beforehand in John 12:16: “At first the disciples did not understand these things; but when Jesus had been glorified, then they recalled that it was precisely these things that had been written about him and these things they had done to him.”
Fr. Jerome Neyrey, SJ, longtime professor of New Testament at Notre Dame, demonstrated that the footwashing scene in John 13 is a “status transformation ritual” in which the disciples are made priests of the new covenant. Peter at first refuses to let Jesus wash his feet, but Jesus’ response that Peter can have no “part” in Jesus (Jn. 13:8b) unless Peter submits to the ritual reveals its gravity and indicates that sacerdotal sharing in Christ is involved. Important is the observation that the phrase ean mē (“unless”) indicates real transformation elsewhere in the Gospel of John:
Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (3:3)
Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (3:5)
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (6:53)
Unless you believe that ‘I AM,’ you will die in your sins. (8:24)
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. (12:24)
Unless I wash you, you have no part in me. (13:8)
As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. (15:4)
In John 13 we find evidence that real ontological transformation is in view. But transformation into what? Into priests, as in John 13 we also find parallels to Leviticus 16, which concerns the priestly Day of Atonement ritual:
Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and shall put off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there; and he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people. (Lev. 16:23-24)
Observe the pattern: The high priest undresses, bathes, dresses, and offers sacrifice. It’s the same pattern found in John 13: Jesus undresses (v. 4), washes the disciples’ feet (v. 5-11), dresses (v. 12), and will soon offer himself in sacrifice. Whereas in Leviticus the high priest washes all of himself, in John, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. Jesus is sharing his high priesthood with the disciples; he must wash them—that is, ordain them as priests—lest they have “no part” in his own priesthood.
Indeed, washing is part of priestly ordination elsewhere in the Old Testament. In the midst of the “consecration” of Aaron and his sons, Moses “washed them with water” (Lev. 8:6-10). We also see Aaron and his sons being washed in Exodus 40:
Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting, and shall wash them with water. (v. 12) […] And he set the laver between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it for washing, with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet; when they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the LORD commanded Moses. (Ex. 40:30-32)
Furthermore, the mention of having a “part” (meros) in John 13:8 recalls the priestly Levites having their portion (meris) in the LORD (Num. 18:20 and Deut. 10:9, LXX).
In short, in John 13 we have the disciples receiving a new status, the status of priests, as made clear by the substantial parallels to passages about priesthood in the Old Testament. If modern men and women wonder why Catholics have an all-male priesthood that wears vestments and offers the sacrifice of the Eucharist in churches that resemble temples, it’s because the Old Testament had an all-male priesthood that wears vestments and offers sacrifices in the tabernacle and temples.
Christ’s Countercultural Teaching
Since, therefore, in Catholic thinking, Jesus’ ritual washing the disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday is the institution of priestly ordination, and since in Catholic tradition priests are males, the footwashing ritual in the liturgy for Holy Thursday is restricted to males, viri selecti. This teaching about the ordination of men only is difficult for some in our radically egalitarian age, but it is authoritative. In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II wrote:
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.
The reasons given in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis come directly from a 1975 letter of Pope Paul VI to Dr. F. D. Coggan, then Archbishop of Canterbury:
She [the Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.
In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul also quotes an address of Paul VI from 1977: “The real reason is that, in giving the Church her fundamental constitution, her theological anthropology—thereafter always followed by the Church’s Tradition—Christ established things in this way.” (For further reading, see Sr. Sara Butler’s The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church.)
This is a countercultural teaching today. Indeed, Jesus’ ordination of males alone as priests was countercultural in the ancient world as well, since the ancient pagan world was well acquainted with priestesses. John Paul writes in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that the document (Declaration Inter Insigniores on the question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood” (October 15, 1976: AAS 69 , 98-116, p. 100) from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “shows clearly that Christ’s way of acting did not proceed from sociological or cultural motives peculiar to his time.” Indeed, Joseph Ratzinger also observed this historical fact:
To many, this demand for the ordination of women, this possibility of having Catholic priestesses, appears not only justified but obvious: a simple and inevitable adaptation of the Church to a new social situation that has come into being.
In reality this kind of “emancipation” of woman is in no way new. One forgets that in the ancient world all the religions also had priestesses. All except one: the Jewish. Christianity, here too following the “scandalous” original example of Jesus, opens a new situation to women; it accords them a position that represents a novelty with respect to Judaism. But of the latter he preserves the exclusively male priesthood. Evidently, Christian intuition understood that the question was not secondary, that to defend Scripture (which in neither the Old nor the New Testament knows women priests) signified once more to defend the human person, especially those of the female sex.
The teaching is clear and historic. How, then, should Catholics present it?
Ignoring or downplaying the issue isn’t much of a strategy, as doing so would involve missing an opportunity to teach upon one of the most misunderstood but crucial aspects of Catholic faith—the priesthood and, more broadly, Catholic ecclesiology. Indeed, the idea of a visible Church with a given structure willed by Christ and bringing Christ himself into the world cuts directly against contemporary Moral Therapeutic Deism, the de facto spirituality of most Americans.
It is true that much of what Catholicism has to say is perceived as a resounding “No!” But any “no” is a reflex of saying “yes” to something good, true, and beautiful about God, man, and nature, whether a matter of reason or revelation. If the world perceives a “no,” it’s because the world’s loves are so very disordered that it says “yes” to darkness and death, seeking the water of life without knowing it’s ingesting a counterfeit poison instead. Thus, Catholics would do well to present teaching about the priesthood positively, to present the priesthood as the great gift that it is, that institution which serves us by bringing us the risen Christ in the sacraments.
It’s also important to point out that talk of the Catholic “hierarchy” is ultimately inadequate. For exercising one’s ministry as a priest or a bishop isn’t a matter of raw power, as if a priest or bishop were merely a prince or potentate. No, serving as a priest or bishop involves serving after the manner of Jesus Christ who “emptied himself and took on the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7), the same Christ who taught his first priests and bishops, the Twelve, that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk. 10:43-44), the same Christ who in washing the disciples’ feet as an “example” to them directly linked priestly and episcopal service with humility.
There is, then, no real tension between reading John 13 as a story concerning the example of serving one another in humility and love and reading it as the institution of the priesthood.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted at CWR on April 16, 2014.)
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Saint John’s account of the Last Supper mentions disciples generally, not the Twelve. The only ones who respond to Jesus in John 13-17 are men, yes. The mandate of service applies to all believers just as Baptism (as a vocation) and the participation in the Eucharist do.
A case can be made for an all-male priesthood. (I suppose also for Jewish men, as that was also the Lord’s practice.) I don’t think John 13 helps to persuade.
St. John wrote his gospel after the three Synoptics; presumably he knew what they contained and did not see a need to specify “the Twelve.” John’s focus and purpose is more mystical, less factual. The Synoptic writers clearly specified what disciples were at the last Supper; why need John say it again? This non-mention does not support an argument that ‘all believers’ or ‘all disciples’ could have been present. One part of scripture is contextually and spiritually related to all others. [Protestants tend to cherry-pick; are you Protestant?]
Moses prefigured Jesus; Moses ordained Aaron and his sons in the OT priesthood. Jesus, as a good Jew, knowledgeable in the Law and knowing what would be suitable and fitting, prudent, just and appropriate for glorifying the Father, called and chose only certain specific men to His priesthood.
Holy Orders consecrates certain men to serve in a unique, different, special way and for a different purpose than all other believers. In Leviticus, the priest offered sacrifice, immolated it, partook of it and then distributed it to “the people.” Jesus followed precedent, not because He was a dumb dolt who couldn’t creatively imagine a better inclusive type world, but because the Law and the world were created by Him and His Father from the beginning. They made it according to Their Perfect and Eternal Law.
Jesus was a man. During the Mass, the priest acts ‘in persona Christi’ (the person of Christ–a man) as the priest repeats the words of Christ who is truly present.
Pope Benedict: “As an alter Christus, the priest is profoundly united to the Word of the Father who, in becoming incarnate took the form of a servant, he became a servant (Phil 2: 5-11). The priest is a servant of Christ, in the sense that his existence, configured to Christ ontologically, acquires an essentially relational character: he is in Christ, for Christ and with Christ, at the service of humankind. Because he belongs to Christ, the priest is radically at the service of all people:…”(address inaugurating the Year of the Priest, 2009).
During the celebration of the Mass, the priest serves ‘in persona Christi,’ — in the very person of Christ, present at the Mass.
Jesus was a man. “Come on, man!” Shall I go on?
HAPPY GOOD FRIDAY, Flowerday.
You have a point there, Todd. Catholic network has an article on this subject and in it we read:
“Mark’s gospel indicates Jesus asked two disciples to prepare the Passover meal and then Jesus “came with the Twelve” (Mark 14:13-17). According to Mark’s gospel, at least fifteen people attended the Last Supper: Jesus, two disciples and “the Twelve”. Since Jesus had male and female disciples, and since meal preparation was a traditionally female role, the two disciples attending the Last Supper easily could have been women.” https://catholicnetwork.us/2018/09/03/who-attended-the-last-supper/?msclkid=43b0d686bd2011ecac6f95aa6834c99b
The article makes a good point when it says that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples and also gave them communion. So do we offer communion only to men?
Nice to see you onboard again!
God bless you,
April 6, 2022.
Could it be that Mal and I held a different perspective on a particular subject? Nevertheless, it is good to see him participating once again!
May I be so bold as to posit, might this be a non sequitur of sorts, from your angle?
P.S. Don’t you and yours truly have an unreserved good time?
Brian, do you not get it that Mal’s comment is a year old? That this article and leading comments are a year old!
And that Mal is not, as you insist, “participating once again.” The thing about the sola Scriptura approach is that it requires at least paying attention to the scriptura.
Thank you for the heads up, glad to say one of us is alert! 🙂 It must be the architect in you, attention to detail. You won’t be offering yours truly a first footing as an apprentice in your firm! 🙁
God’s richest blessings at Easter and always,
No, Mal. Preparing the room for Jesus and the twelve, not for anyone else, they and no one else, not even Mary, did crash the Institution and First Ordination Mass. Don’t do the work of mal or malware…not now especially in these most sacred days…blessings, Padre
Todd, not only does Chapter 13 persuade, it powerfully presents and sings the Praise of the Infallible Teaching, Truth and Mystery of the Priesthood. Triduum Mercies, Father
Washing of the feet, “primarily a record of the institution of the Christian priesthood and thus the Scriptural root of the sacrament of holy orders” (Huizenga).
As usual Dr Leroy Huizenga isolates a key to scripture and Christian practice here priesthood. A key that is ordinarily overlooked, persons mentally logjamed with questions of humility, patronage, all male toxic clericalism, whereas Huizenga speaks to the role of spiritual cleansing initiated by Christ, conveyed through Holy Orders.
Alluded to also is the purification of self repeated in the OT, here in the New the priest, so as to better identify sin and cleanse the penitent. Huizenga in this makes a major contribution to our understanding the power of the Word’s example and written account. The problem of conveying the message by example is that we don’t have parishes with multiple priests, therefore reliance on the laity.
Although the celebrant should speak to the reason for the rite as articulated here by Huizenga. Most important, it is the priest given the faculty [power] to forgive, to cleanse from sin even if the penitent’s contrition is imperfect. This reality of the institution of priesthood is constantly diminished [confessions rarer than ever] and needs to be reawakened within the Church. Sacramental cleansing through penance is at the heart of mercy.
very well witness, Father!
Pope Francis changed the rubric in 2016 (https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2016/01/21/0041/00086.html)
But thank you for the article.
According to this logic, when you limit footwashing to men the overriding message is that the priesthood is limited to men. That’s obvious, so why bother with the ritual?
Um, Michele, because Christ did….
There seems to be the RC overemphasis on the ordained presbyterate/episcopate – I haven’t read a counter-argument to the claim that the foot-washing is a form of Baptism and part of the initiation of the Apostles into the life of Christ. However, that all the ecclesial rites/traditions seem to have a ritual memorializing thus event does indicate that something other than Baptism has been understood as its significance.
Tony, but francis didn’t change what Jesus did and Taught, the priesthood is for men, for ‘Jesus testifies, “I did not come to abolish the OT all-male priesthood Covenant, I came to fulfill, perfect, the All-Male Priesthood Covenant”‘[Matt 5:17]…francis did change the emphasis, wrongly, and in two area’s at least: one, away from Jesus’ intention and doing; and two, including non-baptized sinners as though ‘having part in Jesus’ Priesthood with Him’.
As Father Morello witnesses, the washing of feet signifies the Priest-Lamb’s cleansing sacramental Sacrifice and Love, making the priest worthy to humbly stand and offer this Paschal Sacrifice unblemished, and for the people of to be humbly cleansed and purified sacramentally as well. Christ came to wash away Original and personal sins, With and within the Sacrifice Marriage Mass Christ the Priest cleanses venial sins, that the priest may worthily Offer as Him and that the People being cleansed may worthily enter into the mysteries and especially to receive Him purified. Blessings of the Holy Paschal Triduum!!!
I know Fr. Jerome Neyrey. I doubt he would agree with your use of his article to support your conclusions. Did you have any conversation with him? Thank you.
Greg, are you saying that these are not Father Neyrey’s words, or that some of his words are missing which would make the present quotations/words mis-representation?
But the author knows Christ and presents Christ words and meaning, affirmed by God the Holy Spirit in His Revelation, Inspiration, Tradition and Magisterium – do you mean this is unsupported?? Blessings and mercies of the Paschal Priestly Covenant Christ!
Jesus did not have female disciples. There were women that converted, but they did not travel with Him, they stayed with the BVM. For a woman to travel with a group of men was truly scandalous (which we see in the Joyful Mysteries where Jesus was found preaching in the Temple, Mary was with the women and Joseph with the men, which is why both thought Jesus was with the other). As in the OT, the sacrifice was made and the priest shared it with the faithful, hence Communion for the laity.
Kristina, yes He did and does. I supposed Jesus didn’t actually meet and talk with the Samaritan women because this was profoundly scandalous??
And what to make of this from Saint Luke 8:1-15:
Jesus travelled through towns and villages, preaching the Good News about the Kingdom of God. The twelve disciples went with him, and SO DID SOME WOMEN women who had been healed of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (who was called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had been driven out; Joanna, whose husband Chuza was an officer in Herod’s court; and Susanna, and MANY OTHER WOMEN….
The Beloved’s blessings.
Jesus fulfilled all 3 rolls of prophet, priest and king…..read the book of Hebrews.
Scriptures never says the apostles became priests….Jesus told them to spread his gospel among all nations and make disciples of all people.
Brian, the whole NT as well as Hebrews, and more importantly, God the Holy Spirit from Pentecost onward Revealed and Taught Jesus made His Apostles Priest. Remember, ‘Scripture says Jesus did and said many things not written in Scripture’, ‘that we must hold fast to these’ and ‘we must devote ourselves to these Teachings of the Apostles and their Priesthood in the Breaking of the Bread” – Act 2:42, the other Scriptures one can easily locate…. Also the ‘This Teaching of the Apostles/Church’ is the part of “the Church being the Pillar and Foundation of the Truth”…Blessings, please do not fight against the Holy Spirit or grieve Him, Divine Mercies and Miracles!
– and ‘if you, we, refuse to listen to this and them, we reject Jesus, the Father who sent Him and the Holy Spirit sent by the Father and the Son’….I’ll let you find the Scriptures….
Jesus’ maundy makes an expoundment that reaches far into the future; of Genesis, with authority, about male and female. The Trinity does not submit to ‘monadism’, as It effectuates a relational religion, a love religion, which requires lover and beloved; at least two.
Women are not slighted in the least; indeed they are elevated by the maundy. Consider that Genesis 2 states that the man clings to the wife, not the woman to her husband > actual centrality of women. God submits to be born of woman. Why does God have a mother? [Notice men never compain about an office that is not their’s > motherhood.] Again, the real centrality of woman.
Today we see the demonic peril of neosexuality, unicornism, narcissism and monadism; humans without binary in society, an illusion of being perfectly sufficient unto oneself; no one becomes this! The binary touches every human being in all time.
Men have an office that is only their’s, its just the way it is. Women who want the male office too in addition to the one they already have, are making Eve’s mistake.
The “monad” cannot be also the totality. ABC. To accept it is to live in the splendor and unsurpassable blessing of the Divine Will.
Thank you, jst.
You’ve juxtaposed the beautiful ‘spirating’ union of the Divine Will’s perfect plan for humanity’s feminine and masculine. As the Church is Christ’s Bride, the priest—as the alter Christus male—participates in Christ. Men leave their mothers and fathers in order to cling to their wives. The spiritual version is the man called to join his life to Christ to then unite with Christ’s bride and give rise to our Mother, the Church. The blessing of this spiritual-physical union of masculine and feminine begets new life of faith. The children of such a union are gifted an everlasting inheritance.
The loss or rejection of the beautiful vision of Christian (feminine-masculine) Union becomes, as you suggest, a ‘neosexuality’ which is ugly, empty, and void of any lasting meaning or value.
[It is a vision like Rupnik’s mosaics and paintings of two people sharing one cyclopian eye. When perfect vision is despoiled and demeaned, the Body begins to appear distorted, incongruous, and warped. Christianity–and those who share its vision–will be despised by those without eyes to see.]
A simple question, Todd – were you there? And then, did someone passed on and make you ‘God the Holy Spirit who Teaches the Truth in and to the Church’ and world?? Of course John 13 is the Holy Spirit’s Testimony of God’s all viri Priesthood. Blessings, Padre
Unless I’m missing something, this argument really only makes sense if the ritual were to require that only seminarians or priests could have their feet washed. What is the point of requiring laymen to re-enact a ritual scene in which Jesus is inaugurating the priesthood? Presumably none of these men getting washed are being inaugurated into the priesthood.
Similarly one could argue that Jesus only gave communion to his Apostles at the last supper, all of whom were men. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Why doesn’t this injunction mean that only priests should receive communion, or at least only men? Or perhaps only Bishops?
May the Lord bless you, sorry to see censorship where none should have been. And within Holy Week.
How many soles of those “walking together” will be inclusively/indiscriminately washed by Cardinal Hollerich & Co. at the Synod on Synodality in October 2023? And, if not everybody gets a hall pass at first, then surely in October 2024, or whenever—on this “endless journey”!
Not only “egalitarianism,” but institutionally an “inverted pyramid.” Successors of the Apostles, who?
Thank you, CWR and Dr. Huizanga, for this essay. Could CWR provide something similar on the Stripping of the Altars?
The only audible words during a carefully ordered and reverent folding and removing of items from the altar last night were these lines from Psalm 21: “Dividunt sibi…” (They parted my garments amongst them, and upon my vesture they cast lots.) Then the priests and deacons and servers retired to the sacristy.
The altar of repose and Blessed Sacrament was to the left of the main altar. The barenness, the forsaken altar, the covered crucifex, the blocking of all visual reminders of meaning was like an assault upon one’s soul. THIS IS HOW A WORLD WITHOUT THE SACRIFICE OF CHRIST, WITHOUT CHRISTIANITY, WITHOUT THE CATHOLIC MASS, WOULD LOOK. Stark. Barren. Lifeless.
Immediately, then, the LARGENESS of what Christ has done for us sinks in. If we but knew the grace He offers us all and some.
He HAS NOT GONE, but He is not where we have come to know Him to have been.
A great desolation and then yet a great consolation.