“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.

Vatican II’s “Day of Wrath”: 50 years ago today

With specific fiftieth anniversary markers related to significant Vatican II milestones so abundant in recent years, you might be forgiven for an initial yawn at the suggestion of still another. But American Catholics in particular have reason to pause and take notice of today’s fiftieth anniversary of one of the most dramatic and turbulent days in the entire history of the Council, one in which several Americans – including one of the finest theologians the United States has ever produced – played a key role.


In mid-November 1964, the Council fathers were debating what was to become Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom – though the document’s approval was by no means certain at the time. Indeed, one of the document’s principle architects, Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ, very nearly never made it to the Council at all, having been omitted from the roster of theological experts called to assist the bishops for the Council’s first session, in the fall of 1962. Murray had a history of conflict, at times heated, with the Holy Office’s powerful Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani.

Catholic teaching at the time was widely understood to say that only the Catholic religion had a right to exist and that a truly just government would forbid any public worship other than that which was Catholic. In the mid-1950’s, Ottaviani’s office had formally condemned theological errors in writings by Murray that suggested religious freedom was a human right and pressured Murray’s superiors to order him silent on the subject. It was only the intervention of New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman in early 1963 that compelled the Vatican to invite Murray for the second session in the fall of that year.


Through much of that second session, Ottaviani and his staff had used delaying tactics to try to prevent a proposed text on religious freedom from ever coming up for formal discussion at the Council. It was only the personal intervention of (the recently beatified) Pope Paul VI – in response to pressure from the United States bishops, in the form of a letter drafted primarily by Murray – that pushed Ottaviani finally to relent and allow the draft text to reach the fathers. But further delays prevented it from coming up for formal debate and voting. It would have to wait until the following year.

In the summer of 1964, in preparation for the third session, the American bishops’ conference had sent every member a copy of a long article by Murray on religious freedom. When they all gathered in Rome in the fall, Murray addressed the U.S. bishops at length on the topic, in a meeting held at the North American College on September 21.

On September 23, the Council fathers received a revised religious freedom text for their consideration, and formal debate on the topic began for the first time. The U.S. bishops spoke repeatedly in favor of it in conciliar interventions that bore the mark of Murray’s thinking. But Ottaviani and other conservative prelates criticized it harshly, suggesting its teaching was dangerous and foreign to Catholic doctrine. (For his part, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla – now known as Pope Saint John Paul II – suggested to the fathers that religious freedom was “a fundamental right” that “must be strictly observed by all, especially those who govern.”)

Turmoil erupted in mid-October when Pope Paul, under pressure from the conservatives, appointed a new commission, seemingly stacked with critics of the text, to rework its contents. After quick and strong interventions from many powerful cardinals, the plan was nixed just days later. A third text was prepared, drawing on the conciliar discussion and bearing Murray’s thinking even more than the previous two versions. This is the text the Council fathers received on Tuesday, November 17. Voting on it was set for Thursday the 19th and the fourth session would formally conclude on Saturday the 21st.

On November 18, Cardinal Pericle Felici, Secretary General of the Council, announced that because this new version was so different from the previous one, many fathers felt they needed more time to consider it; therefore, before the next day’s vote on the document, there would first be a vote on whether the vote should take place.

On November 19, as Bishop Emile de Smedt prepared to step to the podium to introduce the text to the fathers, Council president Cardinal Eugene Tisserant engaged in a quick conversation with those among the other nine presidents who were seated directly around him. He then announced brusquely and unexpectedly that the presidents had decided that there would be no vote on the religious freedom document this session. De Smedt would introduce the text, he said, but discussion would wait until the following year. This effectively meant the new text would not be formally “in possession” by the Council and could therefore be removed from the agenda without ever coming to a vote by the body of bishops.

After the already troublesome issues of postponement and delay, Tisserant’s announcement was a shock. An immediate wave of indignation and frustration swept the Council floor. Bishops and theologians were suddenly – as Newsweek reported it a few days later – “milling about the floor like frantic brokers at the stock exchange. Bitterness burned through a babble of tongues.”


Cardinal Albert Meyer, the Archbishop of Chicago who was one of the Council presidents but had not been privy to Tisserant’s quick conversation with those around him before the announcement, became visibly upset. He banged his fist on the table and asked Cardinal Ruffini, seated beside him, if he’d known the announcement was coming. The satisfied smile that Ruffini offered Meyer in reply frustrated the Chicago prelate all the more. Meyer next approached Tisserant, but soon dismissed him, audibly calling him “hopeless.” A group of agitated bishops and theologians quickly coalesced around Meyer in the center of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Even those who had misgivings about the text felt they were being treated dismissively, even contemptuously, and resented it. “They are treating us like children,” one bishop complained aloud.

“Let’s not stand here talking. Who’s got some paper?” Bishop Francis Reh, rector of the North American College, called out. Soon a hand-written petition to the Pope, calling for a reversal of the move, was being passed around the floor of Saint Peter’s for the bishops to sign. “Beatissime Pater,” it began, “reverenter sed instanter, instantius, instantissime petimus…” (“Most Holy Father, respectfully but urgently, very urgently, most urgently we ask…”)

As the tense situation played out, Bishop de Smedt had little choice but to proceed with introducing the text. A speaker of lesser skills might have ended up ignored in the confusion, but De Smedt quickly grabbed the attention of the hall and his address was interrupted repeatedly by vigorous applause from his frustrated audience, at times more than once in the same sentence. Richard J. Regan, SJ, captured the drama of the moments following de Smedt’s speech in a 1967 book on the document’s history:

When he had concluded his report, wild applause, the longest and most sustained of the Council, was accorded his speech. Some of the bishops even stood up in order to clap more vigorously, and two Moderators openly joined the cheering forbidden by the rules. Cardinal Dopfner, the Moderator of the day, made no attempt to stop the sustained applause. In any event, he was powerless to control this display of enthusiasm.

When Dopfner finally tried to thank de Smedt for his report, he made several unsuccessful attempts before he was able to finish a sentence.

“Thwarted once again in their desire to have a vote,” John Coleman, SJ, later wrote, “they voted by vigorously clapping their hands.” And in his careful account of the day’s events in the multi-volume History of Vatican II, Luis Antonio Tagle (now the Cardinal Archbishop of Manila) explained, “The thunderous and prolonged applause that interrupted his speech became an occasion for assembly members to manifest their shock, frustration, disbelief, and anger at the turn of events.”

The hastily prepared petition quickly gathered hundreds of signatures on the Council floor – one account says a thousand in half an hour. Cardinals Meyer, Leger, and Ritter took it immediately and directly to the Pope, who received them promptly, though they had no appointment. But Pope Paul was unwilling to embarrass Tisserant and upheld the decision, promising that religious freedom would be, if at all possible, the first item on the agenda when the fourth session of the Council opened in the fall of 1965.

The day would come to be known as “Black Thursday.” Murray himself later called it a “Day of Wrath.” It was widely considered at the time to be a defeat for the cause of religious liberty.

The session formally concluded on November 21 with the approval and promulgation of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Decree on Eastern Churches, and the Decree on Ecumenism. In a letter he sent to the Pope the previous day, Bishop de Smedt wrote, “Like most of the bishops, I leave Rome profoundly saddened and disheartened by the barely tolerable methods that are constantly being employed by certain influential members of the minority and that have created an extremely serious prejudice to the honor and prestige of Holy Church.”

The Council fathers did return to the topic during the following year’s fourth session, and it was only after still more contentious debate (during which one bishop in the hall commented on the American bishops’ interventions, “The voices are the voices of the United States bishops; but the thoughts are the thoughts of John Courtney Murray”) that Dignitatis Humanae was promulgated on December 7, 1965. Explicitly acknowledging its own teaching as a development of doctrine, the document insisted that there are limits to any government’s power in religious matters and officially made the Catholic Church a defender of the idea “that the human person has a right to religious freedom.” It was, by any measure, historic.

[You’ll find more on this episode from Vatican II, and plenty more on John Courtney Murray’s work that led to the Council’s teaching on religious freedom, in my new book, Struggle, Condemnation, Vindication: John Courtney Murray’s Journey toward Vatican II.]


Blessed Paul VI

With the beatification of Pope Paul VI upon us, I wanted to point out just a few posts from this blog in which this fascinating Pope is featured.

1. I did a series of posts to mark the fifth anniversary of Pope Benedict’s social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. One of them took a look at the previous papal encyclical that Benedict intended to commemorate by publishing it, Pope Paul VI’s historic Populorum Progressio. I noted:

CiV was intended to mark the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s landmark 1967 encyclical on human development, Populorum Progressio. This is itself noteworthy, since almost every social encyclical prior to that was published on an anniversary of Rerum Novarum; for tradition-minded Benedict, the departure was certainly a deliberate choice. Why make it?

That full post is here.

2. During my John Courtney Murray research, I offered a post about the events of one particular day at the Second Vatican Council, under Paul VI’s leadership. It’s a window into the Council’s deliberations on the topic of religious freedom.

This one is especially relevant right now because it’s helpful remedial history to anyone who thinks what happened in Rome these last three weeks is not a lot like what went on for four years at Vatican II. And it’s a helpful theological-doctrinal-pastoral lesson to anyone who thinks that taking the most hardline, conservative approach to any doctrinal question is always the one most faithful to authentic Catholic tradition. Does this paragraph from that post, for example, have a familiar ring to it?

Despite these dramatic statements, there still was a great deal of disarray on the issue among the bishops and theologians at the Council. Several interventions were highly negative. Archbishop Lefebvre — who was then the superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, but later excommunicated from the Catholic Church — bitterly condemned it the schema, saying that the principle of religious freedom “is not one conceived … by the church.” The sharp conflict even generated some apathy on the part of some Council fathers. Many of the official Protestant observers began to sense that the schema might not succeed. Historian Gilles Routhier has written of this point, “The debate seemed to have bogged down, and no one could find a way of ending it.” The next morning’s headline in the New York Herald Tribune would read “Vatican Council near Crisis over Religious Liberty Issue.”

The full post is here.

3. Finally, when Pope Francis released his remarkable apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium last year, I pointed out the appearance in it of a significant quotation from Pope Paul VI’s apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens. In a post titled “Octogesima Adveniens is Back,” I commented:

Among the (ever-growing) list of “firsts” ascribed to Pope Francis, we can add: first Pope to quote section 4 of OA in a papal document. (Not as sexy, I’ll grant you, as first Pope to be named Esquire magazine’s Best Dressed Man of the Year. But interesting at the very least.)

Find out why the quotation is both unique and perhaps quite important in the full post, here.

These are not the only places Paul VI has been brought up on this blog. All my posts related to Paul VI are here.

A day at Vatican II: on the road to church teaching on religious freedom

In the interest of sharing some of the fascinating work I’ve been doing with my John Courtney Murray project, here’s a morsel. It’s a look at just one day during the Second Vatican Council, as the bishops of the world debated the draft of what would ultimately become Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Though we take for granted today both the document and its teaching, I have found that there were quite a few points — during the Council itself, but also during the decade leading up to it — when the path of church history could easily have taken a different direction.

Monday, September 20, 1965, was the fourth day of the most recent round of debate on the document. The previous three days had seen several interventions in favor of the schema (often from American bishops prepared for the task by John Courtney Murray), but some of the most powerful prelates of the church harshly denounced it. Cardinals Ottaviani, Ruffini, and Siri, for example, had all spoken against it, suggesting that it would promote religious indifferentism and even that it flatly contradicted previous church teaching.

The first to speak that Monday morning was Cardinal Joseph-Charles Lefebvre (not to be confused with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who will also show up below). This Lefebvre used his intervention to respond carefully and effectively to six objections repeatedly raised by opponents of the religious freedom schema. Then came Baltimore’s Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan, who spent his time at the podium addressing criticism that the document was unfaithful to Catholic doctrine. He provided a careful and systematic review of teaching of past popes (that was clearly the handiwork of John Courtney Murray) in “the ardent hope,” he said, “that the fathers will approve the schema almost unanimously.”

A rather remarkable series of interventions on behalf of the document followed. Cardinal Josef Beran took his place before the fathers. During the 1940s, Beran had been imprisoned by the Nazis in the Theresienstadt and Dachau concentration camps. After four years of freedom, during which he had been named Archbishop of Prague, Beran was imprisoned in 1949 by the Communist regime and remained so until 1963. Since his release, he had been forbidden by his government from exercising his ministry. As he stood on the floor of the Council that fall of 1965, he had just moved to Rome a few months earlier, in exchange for concessions from his government for more freedom for the Church in Czechoslovakia, and had been named a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.

Standing for the first time before his brother bishops, who knew well the suffering he had endured for his fidelity to the Church, Beran reminded them of the burning of the Czech priest Jan Hus in the fifteenth century and the forced conversions of Czech Protestants in the seventeenth century. These events, he said, “left a certain wound hiding in the hearts of the people” and damaged the Church’s credibility. He called for repentance on the part of the Church and said that “the principle of religious freedom and freedom of conscience must be set forth clearly and without any restriction flowing from opportunistic considerations.” (Beran died in Rome in 1969 and is buried in the grottoes of Saint Peter’s Basilica. His cause for canonization is under investigation.)

Following Beran, Cardinal Joseph Cardijn took his place before the bishops. Cardijn was the founder of the Young Christian Workers, an impressive movement that at that moment was made up of nearly two million members in almost seventy countries around the globe. Pope Paul had recently named Cardijn a cardinal, too, though he had not even been a bishop, in recognition of his remarkable work. Cardijn, too, spoke in favor of the religious freedom schema. (The cause for Cardijn’s canonization has been officially launched in his home diocese in Belgium.)

As if that were not enough, the next speaker was Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Archbishop of Warsaw and Primate of Poland, who also had suffered imprisonment – in his case for three years – under the Communists. He too spoke in favor of the schema.

Despite these dramatic statements, there still was a great deal of disarray on the issue among the bishops and theologians at the Council. Several interventions were highly negative. Archbishop Lefebvre — who was then the superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, but later excommunicated from the Catholic Church — bitterly condemned it the schema, saying that the principle of religious freedom “is not one conceived … by the church.” The sharp conflict even generated some apathy on the part of some Council fathers. Many of the official Protestant observers began to sense that the schema might not succeed. Historian Gilles Routhier has written of this point, “The debate seemed to have bogged down, and no one could find a way ending it.” The next morning’s headline in the New York Herald Tribune would read “Vatican Council near Crisis over Religious Liberty Issue.”

On Tuesday morning, Pope Paul (who was just a month away from a historic visit to the United Nations headquarters in New York City) summoned the Council leadership to his apartment to say he thought it was time for a preliminary vote on the schema.

[My sources on what I offer above are Gilles Routhier, “Finishing the Work Begun: The Trying Experience of the Fourth Period,” in the remarkable multi-volume Alberigo History of Vatican II; Richard Regan, SJ, Conflict & Consensus: Religious Freedom and the Second Vatican Council; and John Coleman, SJ, “The Achievement of Religious Freedom,” U.S. Catholic Historian, 24:1 (Winter 2006), 21-32.]