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Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vaticans Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments

March 16, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — Amid reports of priests saying their bishops are insisting they wash the feet of women during the Holy Thursday liturgy, Pope Francis’ liturgy chief has told reporters that washing the feet of women during the Holy Thursday celebration is not a requirement according to the new rite. 

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, told reporters February 26 that every bishop or priest “has to decide in accord with his own conscience, and according to the purpose for which the Lord instituted this feast.”

Pope Francis decreed in January that the practice of a priest washing exclusively the feet of men during the optional Holy Thursday rite was outdated. According to the new instructions, “pastors may select a small group of the faithful to represent the variety and the unity of each part of the people of God,” adding that “such small groups can be made up of men and women.”

The Pope said he decided to innovate on the rite “with the intention of improving the way in which it is performed so that it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus' gesture in the Cenacle, His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity.”

A confusion arose when Archbishop Arthur Roche, Secretary for the Congregation for Divine Worship, appeared to suggest in a commentary on the rite that pastors are obliged to “choose a small group of persons who are representative of the entire people,” including women. 

Cardinal Sarah’s clarification comes as good news for Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan who has raised serious concern about the changing of the rite. 

Bishop Schneider told Rorate Caeli last month that allowing the “foot washing of women along with the men not only distracts from the main focus on Eucharist and on Priesthood, but generates confusion regarding the historical symbolism of the ‘twelve’ and of the apostles being of male sex.”

“The public washing and usually also kissing of the feet of women on the part of a man, in our case, of a priest or a bishop, is considered by every person of common sense in all cultures as being improper and even indecent,” he added. 

Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, told the Wanderer that Cardinal Sarah’s clarification is timely, but unlikely to change the minds of those who champion the new rite as a “requirement” in the name of ‘inclusion.’ 

“Of course it should be made clear that this is a permission, not a requirement. But even that clarity won’t affect what actually happens,” he said, noting a similar situation in which the permission that was granted for female altar servers under Pope John Paul II made some bishops insist that the regular use of altar girls be normative for all Masses.

Fr. Fessio said that while the pope, as supreme legislator, has the power to change Church laws “any which way he desires,” the prototype of Jesus washing the feet of his 12 male apostles will always remain the same. 

“One thing is certain: There is a ‘symbolic dissonance’ or disconnect [in the new rite that allows for women participants]. The humility and service of which Jesus gives an example is something every Christian owes everyone. Nevertheless, the historical origin of the example is Jesus’ washing of the feet of His 12 apostles. Trying to make the gesture more ‘inclusive’ than Jesus Himself did simply muddles the historical image,” he said. 

Fr. Peter Stravinskas, scholar, author, and apologist, told Faithful Insight that the innovation continues a problematic trend in the Church where repeated disobedience to clear liturgical norms is eventually rewarded by a change in Church law. 

“We’ve now seen how direct disobedience to norms against reception of Holy Communion in the hand, altar girls, reception under both species on Sunday, switching Holy Days of obligation, and now allowing women to participate in the foot washing rite, leads to a change in the norm.”

“There’s a pattern here: Disobey repeatedly, and eventually the law will change. It appears to be an inexorable process,” he said.