VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis has changed church regulations to correspond to his rule-breaking celebration of the Easter Week ritual of washing the feet of men and women, Christians and not, in a sign of universal service.
Vatican rules for the Holy Thursday rite had long called for only men to participate, and popes past and many priests traditionally performed the ritual on 12 Catholic men, recalling Jesus’ 12 apostles.
Shortly after he was elected, Francis raised conservative eyebrows by performing the rite on men and women, Christians as well as Muslims, at a juvenile detention facility in Rome.
He has continued to include men and women, young and old, sick and healthy and people of different faiths, traveling each year to encounter them to show his willingness to serve. It was a tradition he began as archbishop in Buenos Aires.
On Thursday, the Vatican published a decree from the Vatican’s liturgy office introducing an “innovation” to the church’s rules that corresponds to Francis’ way of doing things.
The decree said the rite can now be performed on anyone “chosen from among the people of God.” It specifies that the group can include “men and women, and hopefully young and old, healthy and sick, clerical, consecrated and lay.”
Priests must make sure that those participating are instructed beforehand as to the significance of the gesture. While the phrase “people of God,” generally refers to baptized Christians, the decree also said “both the chosen faithful and others” should be instructed by the priest, suggesting the rite could be open to non-Catholics as well.
In an accompanying letter, dated Dec. 20 but released Thursday, Francis wrote that he wanted to change the current rules “to fully express the significance of Jesus’ gesture, his giving of himself to the end for the salvation of the world and his unending charity.”
Francis overturned centuries of tradition that banned women from a foot-washing service during Lent, upsetting conservatives and delighting women’s rights activists.
Until now, only men or boys were formally allowed to take part in the service, in which a priest washes and kisses the feet of 12 people to commemorate Jesus’ gesture of humility towards his apostles on the night before he died.
But in a letter to the Vatican department that regulates rites of worship, Francis said the group should be made up of “all members of the people of God,” including women.
The ritual takes place in Catholic parishes around the world on Holy Thursday, four days before Easter. While some parishes in the 1.2 billion member Church had already included women and girls, most have stuck to the written rules, particularly in developing countries.
“This is great news, a wonderful step forward,” said Erin Hanna, co-director of the U.S.-based Woman’s Ordination Conference, which promotes a female Catholic priesthood.
“This means that change is possible, doors seem to be opening in the Vatican,” she told Reuters.
Francis has held these services in a home for the elderly and even included Muslims when he held them in Italian jails, outraging traditionalists.
“I feel very sorry for priests who have been trying to obey liturgical law on this issue … they may well feel betrayed,” Joseph Shaw, head of a traditionalist group called The Latin Mass Society, said of the new rules.
“Liturgical conservatives who have sought in recent decades to keep the rules … often in the face of considerable pressure, may well feel the rug has been pulled from under them by this decree,” he said in a statement.
A decree issued on the pope’s behalf by Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea said Jesus had “given his life for the salvation of all of humanity” and the group should be a mix of men, women, old people, young people, the sick and the healthy.
The pope has said he wants to put women in more positions of power in the Vatican and the Church worldwide, but he has ruled out allowing women priests, saying “the door is closed” on the issue.