Thursday, April 2, 2015

The mandatum: Maundy Thursday and stinky feet

The kings of medieval Europe washing the feet of beggars
It's another Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Easter Triduum: it's a busy day, with the consecration of holy oils for the upcoming year by the bishop at his cathedral, the washing of feet in remembrance of Christ's new commandment ("to love one another as I have loved you"), and most importantly, to commemorate the last supper, the first Mass, on the night He was betrayed.

Maundy Thursday also means another slew of pictures of Pope Francis washing random marginalized people's feet to the fawning of his fans and eye-rolling of a tiny minority of skeptics also called traditionalists. This year, as usual, the Vatican announced well in advance that the Pope will be celebrating the Mass of the Last Supper at a prison and washing the feet of inmates. We can expect, based on previous publicity stunts in the reign of Francis, that the selection of people to be washed may include a Muslim or two.

The New Liturgical Movement just posted an article to let Catholics know that the rubrics of the modern Roman Mass make the mandatum, the rite of foot-washing, merely an option; but if it is to be used, the people to be washed must be male. It's all quite sound from a legal point of view. The article is completely correct: at the Mass of the Last Supper, only men's feet can be washed. But there's an elephant in the room: the fact that Pope Francis himself has washed women's feet on this day in the past, and has even made quite a media spectacle of it. Some apologists point out that, since Francis is the Pope, he's above the law and can do whatever he wants in the liturgy, including washing women's or Muslims' feet. Again, strictly speaking, that's true... though since he was also known to wash women's feet during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, while he was still fully subject to liturgical law, this entire line of argument reeks of the papal positivism; the "because he's the pope" mentality that's permeated the faith for well over a century.

The mandatum, Francis-style.
Back when I was a Seventh-day Adventist, our church, a few times a year (not Maundy Thursday), though it wasn't big on ceremonies of any kind, practiced foot-washing. Basically, a bunch of buckets were distributed, and everyone washed everyone else's feet. It wasn't just a ceremonial pouring of water, though. No, we had to get between the toes and everything. When I became a Catholic, the foot-washing rite during Maundy Thursday was something I could readily identify with. It signified to me that Catholic priests, too, were willing to bend the knee to others and show that they were ready to serve their flock, not just rule their souls. This is why the rite on Maundy Thursday is called the mandatum. Traditionally, as the priest goes to wash the first foot, the choir sings an antiphon from John's gospel: Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos. "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you." The mandatum, the commandment, is even how this day came to be called "Maundy".

Up until yesterday, I actually never thought much about the liturgical law which restricts it to men. When I first became Catholic, I learned that twelve men are chosen to represent the twelve Apostles whom Christ ordained that day as the first priests of the Church. Since only Catholic men can become priests, Pope Francis's spectacle of washing the feet of women or non-believers seemed to be a deliberate subversion of the traditional understanding.

The mandatum in the Benedict XVI era, at Saint John Lateran.
But then, in the course of my usual readings of liturgical history, I discovered that the mandatum wasn't even performed during the Mass of the Last Supper until 1950.

At that point, I came to the conclusion that all talk of what is or isn't "traditional" bears much closer investigation before issuing a verdict on the curious case of Pope Francis. I haven't been able to learn a whole lot more since then, but here's what I've been able to piece together so far:

1.) The practice of foot-washing is ancient, predating Christ to time immemorial. The first reference to it in Scripture is a mention of Abraham offering to wash the feet of the three wayfarers in Genesis 18. In a middle Eastern and Mediterranean culture, people typically wore sandals and gathered dust over their bare feet every day. The foot-washing was part of an ancient rite of hospitality, an aspect which is perhaps lost on northerners and moderns whose feet are enclosed in shoes or boots. Furthermore, the Rule of Saint Benedict, first written in the 6th century, ordered monks to receive all guests by washing their feet, as well as pouring water over their hands.

2.) Nonetheless, the rite of the mandatum wasn't always a part of Maundy Thursday ceremonies. Saint Augustine's letters suggest it wasn't universally accepted in his day. In Spain, though, the third set of canons of the Seventeenth Council of Toledo (A.D. 694) mandate its use everywhere on pain of excommunication: "Since Our Lord has not disdained to wash the feet of His disciples, why should we refuse to emulate the example He gives us? It now happens that, partly from slackness, partly from custom, in sundry churches the priests no longer wash the feet of the brethren on Maundy Thursday."

3.) The mandatum had come into use in Rome itself by the 7th century, where the Roman Ordo in Coena Domini instructs the pope to wash the feet of his attendants; though not, it seems, during Mass itself. The next mention of the mandatum among Roman sources doesn't come up again until Roman Ordo 11, dating to the 12th century. There, the pope has two ceremonies: one in public, where he washes the feet of his subdeacons... and one in private, in his apartments, where he washes the feet of thirteen poor men. It seems the medieval popes wanted to cover both bases: the sacerdotal and the servile.

4.) In imitation of the popes and archbishops, the medieval kings of Europe also washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary was known to wash the feet of twelve lepers. Until the 20th century, the kings and queens of Spain washed the feet of twelve poor men and twelve poor women, respectively, every year after Maundy Thursday Mass in the royal chapel. All were also provided with new clothes. James Monti's The Week of Salvation relates one story: when Queen Isabella II's diamond bracelet fell from her arm into the water, the woman being washed reached down to give it back to her, but the queen said, "keep it, mia hija; it is your luck."

Maundy money in Elizabeth II's reign
5.) The kings of Great Britain still practice the "royal Maundy" service to this day, where alms in the form of specially coined "Maundy money" are still given out; though the footwashing itself fell out of practice after the last Catholic king of England, James II, was overthrown. His successor, the Protestant William III, apparently wasn't much for smelly feet. William eventually stopped showing up to the services altogether, passing it on to the royal almoner. It was only in the 20th century, with George VI (Queen Elizabeth II's father), that the kings began to personally participate in the Royal maundies again.

6.) What about at the local parish? It seems that having a mandatum (in its own rite, apart from Mass) was widespread in the Middle Ages, but gradually waned through the Counter-Reformation (the 16th century) until, by the 20th century, it was dead (though still on the books as an official Holy Week rite).

7.) With the 1950-1955 Holy Week reforms, the mandatum was inserted into the Mass of the Last Supper itself, giving it more prominence than ever before.

And now, here we are, back in the 21st century. What did that romp through history tell us? First, while the washing of feet is a powerful sign of Christ's ordaining the first priests, that's not the original reason. We can call that a legitimate development, but the association of the mandatum with the poor has been there since its introduction. Second, including the mandatum into the Mass itself opens the rite up to a sort of criticism that wouldn't otherwise exist. The Mass of the Last Supper is bound up with the institution of the first Mass, and that significance is arguably lessened by merging it with the mandatum of the poor.

Still, omitting the mandatum entirely just to avoid the politics around excluding women at Mass is, in my mind, a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, just as with the omission of the kiss of peace (which I described in another article earlier this week). Traditionalists may think they're tainted with touchy-feely sentimentalism; and they are; but they're also venerable signs of what it means to be a Christian.

Father Sean Finnegan left an interesting comment on the New Liturgical Movement article I linked you to at the beginning of the post. He wrote,
"I have recently taken over a parish where washing women's feet is routinely done. So I have decided to try delving into liturgical history. In the Sarum Use, the Mandatum took place at lunch (after the Solemn Mass in those days, of course), with the High Priestly Prayer of our Lord being read. Not only would the 'presider' wash others' feet, but all would participate, washing and being washed. Finally, a loving cup was shared. I am going to try that here this year: we will have an 'agape' simple meal in the evening, long enough before the Mass to observe the liturgical fast. We will all, men and women, wash each others' feet, and share a loving cup as the account of the Last Supper is read from St John's Gospel. Then, at the Mass of the Lord's Supper, we will omit the Mandatum entirely, as the rubrics permit. Hopefully, this way everyone will be happy."
(For more info, Father Finnegan has a blog article from 2009 detailing the Sarum mandatum rite here. Like many other rites in the Sarum Missal, it was written with cathedral usage in mind and assumes that one has a chapter house.)

That seems like the perfect resolution to the problem, and I wish something like it was offered here in my city. If I can find the text of the Sarum Use's ceremony, or even the pre-1955 Roman ceremony of the mandatum outside of Mass, I'll share it with you.

All articles in my Holy Week 2015 series, short and long

The kiss of peace (for Spy Wednesday)

Terra tremuit! (the Offertory antiphon of Easter Sunday)


  1. I've suggested before that to deal with all the overlapping and sometimes contradictory symbolism (does it really make sense to limit it to men "because of male ordination" if the men in question are LAY men anyway, and not actually ordained by the act?) we should really have three foot-washings on Maundy Thursday:

    1) the bishop should wash the feet of 12 priests (ideally, the numerary cathedral canons) at the Chrism Mass in the morning,

    2) the pastor should wash the feet of all the catechumens the parish has that year (men and women) regardless of number,

    3) the Monarch, the Pope, and any other bishops who feel so inclined...should wash the feet of paupers in a service outside liturgy. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the traditional Roman number here would be 13 actually, not twelve, based on the legend of St. Gregory.