“A development that follows the logic of the rite”: Augé on the foot-washing rite

Matias Augé is a highly regarded liturgical theologian and longtime professor at the Anselmo, the renowned Benedictine school of liturgical theology in Rome. Below are the reflections that Fr. Augé offered on his blog two days ago, with the announcement of Pope Francis’s change to the rubrics of the Holy Thursday foot-washing rite.

The original post is in Italian; the translation is mine, as are the bracketed translations of the Latin passages. (My thanks to Fr. Anthony Ruff, who helped me understand the reference to the “signal given with the tabula” in the second paragraph. More on that here.)

It’s worth noting in reading this: mimetic refers to imitating something, while anamnetic refers to liturgically memorializing it.

“The Rite of Foot-Washing in the Roman Liturgy”

By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus made visible the logic of love and of service that guided his life toward his death on the cross. But this gesture of Jesus is also the foundation of an ecclesial practice. The Christian community is invited to follow the way of service: “…so you ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14).

The Roman liturgy has included the foot-washing in the context of Holy Thursday rather recently, only in the second millennium, as we see in the twelfth century Pontificale Romano, in which the rite take place after Vespers. The thirteenth century liturgy of the Roman Curia includes this rite in an abbreviated form, which then passes into the Messale Romano of Pius V, in its 1570 edition, where it is celebrated outside of Mass during the afternoon. It is worth noting that the rubric of this Missal does not seem to preoccupy itself with the mimetic dimension of Jesus’s action. In fact, the rubric does not speak of washing the feet of “twelve” people; it says simply: “Post denudationem altarium, hora competenti, facto signo cum tabula, conveniunt clerici ad faciendum mandatum. Maior abluit pedes minoribus: tergit  et osculatur…” [“After the altar is stripped, and at the proper hour, the signal having been given with the tabula, the clergy present carry out the mandatum. The senior washes the feet of his lessers: he wipes and kisses them…”] Note that this gesture is carried out only among the members of the clergy. Here we see that that liturgy is in general more anamnetic than mimetic: it makes memorial of the Lord’s actions, interpreting them in a broad ritual context.

With the reform of Holy Week carried out by Pius XII in 1955, the foot-washing takes place after the homily of the Mass in cena Domini [the Mass of the Lord’s Supper]. The same is the case in the Messale Romano of 1962. Here the foot-washing is done to “duodecim viros selectos” [“twelve chosen men”]. Now it is no longer a solely clerical gesture and the reference to “twelve men” make it a more explicitly mimetic rite.

This, however, is corrected by the Messale Romano of Paul VI, which no longer makes reference to the number twelve, but speaks only of “viri selecti” [“chosen men”]. The antiphons that accompany the rite of foot-washing emphasize the great theme of charity with the texts taken from John and 1 Corinthians 13 (the hymn to charity), and the rite concludes at the beginning of the offertory, with the ancient hymn Ubi caritas et amor (in the Missal of Paul VI, happily, it becomes: Ubi caritas est vera). The foot-washing is now intended to help us understand and live better the great and fundamental precept of fraternal charity which applies to all baptized men and women.

If Pope Francis has now decreed that the foot-washing is done to “qui selecti sunt ex populo Dei” [“those who are chosen from among the people of God”], we can say that it is a development that follows the logic of the rite, keeping in mind that: 1) in the Missal of Paul VI, the mimetic dimension is no longer emphasized; 2) following Vatican II, the magisterium of the Church has strongly emphasized the equality of rights and duties shared by men and women (see Gaudium et Spes 9; Evangelii Gaudium 103-104); and 3) it is no longer a rite performed by members of the clergy. In this regard, we might recall that for several years, even after Vatican II, girls were forbidden to serve at the altar. That ban was lifted as the result of an interpretation of canon 230, §2 of the Code of Canon Law, which states: “Lay persons can fulfill the function of lector in liturgical actions by temporary designation. All lay persons can also perform the functions of commentator or cantor, or other functions, according to the norm of law.” The reference to “lay persons” obviously refers to both men and women.

Many times, Pope Francis has asked for expanded roles for women in the Church (cf. Evangelii Gaudium 103-104). The Pontiff’s approach to the issue of the role of women in society and in the Church is quite attentive to modernity. It is a vision in which women are equal to men in rights and duties, but complementary and different as the bearers of specific characteristics, making his own the new social paradigm of “reciprocity in equivalence and in difference.”

In this area, however, one must keep in mind the possible impediments to washing the feet of women in public in some cultures. Note therefore that the rubric “qui selecti sunt ex populo Dei” is generic (it does not carry any obligation that women are always included), and therefore the bishop can interpret it in light of the various local situations.

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