Francis sanctioned the abuse he committed earlier and introduced to the rite of Mandatum an optional possibility of washing the feet not only of men but also of women. The decision itself, knowing pope Bergoglio, comes as no surprise: many a time he showed that he can have it all his way, even if it was not so much reasonable or compliant with the spirit of the liturgy. The problem is that by this decision Francis not only changed a rubric in the Missal but also the meaning of Christ’s gesture.
First and foremost, Mandatum is not a simple washing of feet. Today, apart from the liturgical life of Christian communities, this anachronic gesture is used only towards the elderly or the sick. When it is performed by someone dear it expresses love and care. However, these feelings did not lead Christ’s action, which he clearly declared: it was about humbling oneself and about ability to serve the others, despite one’s higher place in the hierarchy. This is why Jesus performed it on this special day and in this chosen group. Although he could invite women, including His Mother, he did not do so. Why? Because his gesture would have a different meaning.
In order to understand this notion, we have to go back 2000 years, to the Cenacle. There we can see Christ together with his twelve disciples consuming the Paschal feast, probably lying. Jesus took the place of the host and, next to him, leaned against his chest, there is his beloved disciple, St. John. On the other side of the Master Judas might be lying, as he had to be close enough to dip hand with Jesus in one dish or to receive dipped bread from Him. However, the most interesting is the place which St. Peter could have occupied: according to the Gospel and the tradition preserved, for example, in the ceremony of Maundy in eastern rites, the Prince of the Apostles took the bed which was the lowest in the hierarchy.
From St. Luke’s account we know that among the disciples there arose an argument about the primate, which had to be solved by Christ Himself. But the words were not enough: suddenly Jesus stood up, took off his robes and girded himself with a cloth to wash His disciples’ feet. This is a peculiarity: this activity was not a duty of a host, who was Christ, but rather of a servant or who occupied the last place, that would be St. Peter, according to the theory mentioned above. That would explain not only why no one got down to do this earlier on, but also why Kephas recoiled so much from Jesus washing his feet. Perhaps the words of Jesus concerning the earlier argument between the Apostles were an allusion to Peter to fulfil his duty, which he did not understand or did not want to. And to give an example that the first should be ready to be the last one and the greatest – to be the smallest one, Jesus did what one of his disciples should have done.
Only by learning about it one can understand what the meaning of Christ’s gesture was. Despite numerous possibilities, He performed it on that particular day in that particular place and for particular people. He was the Master and the Lord and they were His disciples, chosen from many other. This is why there was a rule on Maundy Thursday that the superior, a bishop or the head of the community, washed his subordinates’ feet. Therefore this gesture is fully and truly the commemoration of Christ’s Maundy, as it takes place between the people connected with the immediate relationship. This is why the place of the papal station liturgy on Maundy Thursday was the Lateran Archbasilica, the cathedral of the bishop of Rome.
Throughout the ages in the Church there have developed various customs connected with this ceremony: bishops washed feet of lay men, as did the kings to the chosen subjects. While one might understand a counterpart in the parochial liturgy, namely the parish priest washing feet of curates and altar servers, all other deviations from the primary rule, especially those motivated by gender and religion equality, distort the meaning of what Christ did in the Cenacle. Whereas Maundy performed by a bishop, when he humiliates himself towards his subordinate clergymen or seminarians is the most perfect reflection of Christ’s gesture from the Last Supper, its other variations diverge from this ideal. Allowing women into this ceremony will render Maundy only a weak echo of Jesus’ act, deprived of its whole symbolic meaning.