On January 22, Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, had a lengthy commentary in L’Osservatore Romano on the decree In Missa in Cena Domini, the official document that permitted women to be included in the rite of the washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday. Archbishop Roche, formerly bishop of Leeds in England, offers an interesting historical discussion of the rite, from its origins as a separate ceremony to its inclusion in 1955 as part of the Maundy Thursday Mass, including the gradual development of the requirement of 12 viri selecti. One statement in his commentary leapt out at us,
La lavanda dei piedi non è obbligatoria nella Missa in cena Domini. Sono i pastori a valutarne la convenienza, secondo circostanze e ragioni pastorali, in modo che non diventi quasi automatica o artificiale, priva di significato e ridotta a elemento scenico. Neppure deve diventare così importante da catalizzare tutta l’attenzione della messa nella cena del Signore, celebrata nel «giorno santissimo nel quale Gesù Cristo nostro Signore fu consegnato alla morte per noi» (Communicantes proprio del Canone romano); nelle indicazioni per l’omelia si ricorda la peculiarità di questa messa, commemorativa dell’istituzione dell’eucaristia, dell’ordine sacerdotale e del comandamento nuovo dell’amore fraterno suprema legge per tutti e verso tutti nella Chiesa.
(Emphases added.) In the partial translation at CatholicCulture.org, this is rendered,
“The washing of feet is not mandatory,” he added, and pastors should “evaluate its suitability” in their circumstances. The rite should not be “automatic or artificial, deprived of meaning,” nor should it become “so important that all the attention of the Mass” is focused on it.
There you have it, from no less a personage than the Number Two Man at the Congregation for Divine Worship: the washing of feet is not obligatory. In addition to this, one must remember that the Missa in Cena Domini is hugely important and significant, and it is so whether or not a single foot is washed; the Mass commemorates both the institution of the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood of the New Testament. These are important things by themselves. It also opens the door to the grave solemnity of Good Friday. For this reason, Archbishop Roche suggests, the washing of feet should not become the central event in the Missa in Cena Domini. But the washing of feet has value of its own, and that value ought not to be degraded by turning the rite into an automatic chore that Father has to get through to get back to the “real part” of the Mass. And if a priest thinks that there’s a risk of either happening, then he should feel free to omit the rite altogether.
It seems to us that, whatever the washing of feet now symbolizes (we would have said that the Holy Father has chosen to emphasize the humble service aspect over the ritual cleansing as part of the institution of the priesthood, but Fr. John Hunwicke disagrees with that), it is better emphasized outside of the Missa in Cena Domini. Some pastors will likely choose to omit the rite, but we don’t see why it needs to go that far. We have written—and written and written—about the importance of the Divine Office, particularly public celebrations of the Divine Office. Perhaps a priest could arrange for a celebration of Tenebrae to be followed immediately by the washing of feet. (With breakfast following in the parish hall afterward.) Or he could arrange for the celebration of vespers in the afternoon, followed by the washing of feet. (With a light supper following in the parish hall afterward to fortify Father and others for the evening’s liturgy.) One could get fairly creative about these things and come up with services that manage to point up whatever it is that the washing of feet now symbolizes. (Mercy? Humble service?)
One can speculate as to why Pius XII felt compelled to move the washing of feet rite to the Missa in Cena Domini (we suspect that his advisers wanted to get laity inside the communion rail as part of a broader project), but there’s no reason, really, why that has to be the case.