Religious signs and symbols are usually very misunderstood by Catholics. The reason is not that we do not have lots of them for personal spiritual contemplation, but that the entire concept of sign and symbol is frequently lost in modern perceptions that usually involve politically correct assumptions. One great example of this confusion is the ritual Washing of the Feet, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. The optional observance of this ritual in the Holy Thursday liturgy has both sign and symbol dimensions associated with the actions. Jesus’ washing of the feet of the disciples is a sign of Jesus’ humility by performing this act. It is also a symbol of Jesus’ message of service that he conveys to the Apostles by acting as a personal attendant for the needs of the Apostles. Additionally, it is also central to the cultures of the Semitic and Eastern cultures to ritually wash before the participation in a meal. Good hospitality in the Jewish world included the opportunity for guests to “freshen-up,” so to speak. After travel on dusty paths and highways to celebrate the Passover meal, such cleansing would be a welcome relief.

Jesus offers however a strong indication of His determination to perform this act of hospitality for the Apostles as an example of ministerial service for His Apostles. One needs to understand that Jesus is the principle leader of this gathering and the host of the Passover meal. His actions are indeed the antithesis of what one would expect from the host in similar situations. One for example would not anticipate President Bush, attending to the needs of his guests personally at a state dinner. One does not anticipate Jesus’ actions of ritual purification. However, that is precisely what He does and the entire notion regarding personal service is conveyed to the Apostles and indirectly to the Church by the actions.

In the rituals for the celebration of Holy Week, this ritual washing is something that happens every year in our cathedrals, and local parishes. We have become so accustomed to the ritual of 12 people presenting themselves for ritual purification; we forget the actual Roman liturgical specifications call for men, (vir.) to represent the Apostles. Every year it seems that both men and women present themselves for this symbolic reenactment. Perhaps as American Catholics, we have permitted the notion of political correctness to enter into our Roman liturgy. Strictly speaking, the ritual cites very clearly that men should be the recipients of the Mandatum. Every year, male and female feet are washed in this ritual. While strictly speaking, in terms of the proper interpretation of the Latin directives the use of women in this action is incorrect. Ritual purity specifies clearly the requirement of men for the gesture.

Before we all get in a theological and liturgical uproar over the proper gender for the washing of feet on Holy Thursday, we need to return to the significance of both the actions, sign and symbol purpose in the Last Supper narrative. Jesus performs this action as a sign of humility and a symbol of service. That is really, what the reenactment is about. Whether or not the feet are male or female, have no consequential value. After all, our Church is made up of both males and females and both are equally welcome in Christ’s Church.

The linguistic use of the masculine noun in the Roman Ritual is not intended as a mode of discrimination for the Church Fathers that restored this Holy Thursday celebration in the revised rituals for Holy Week in 1953. While reading on this topic, the author noticed that the Ordo…the guidelines used for the proper celebration of the Sacraments indicates that, a “cross-section” of faithful should be representative in the Mandatum. This indicates for necessary pastoral reason the use of both males and females for this ritual.

Frankly, we need to cease the confusion about this matter and similar things in the viable expression of our Catholic religion. In this case, Holy Thursday is not the time to banter about the proper gender usage of feet in our ceremonies. Holy Thursday is a celebration of the most sacred events in our Catholic history. Jesus’ actions are indicative of a higher transcendence of purpose in His actions.

Purists will insist on the feet of 12 men for the Mandatum. Others will insist on all gender inclusion in the act. What is important however is this: Jesus performed this act of humility and service for His Apostles. In sacred remembrance on Holy Thursday, the Church reenacts this gesture (optionally) with the participation of men and women of faith each year. Our intention is to always promote and enhance the real message of Jesus’ actions…faith and service for all peoples. Political correctness and linguistic nuances should not divide Catholics in their ritual celebrations of the Lord’s Passion and Death. Such points are properly left for the canonists, liturgists and ritual purists to debate and argue. As Catholics, our purpose is to effectively communicate the sacred sign and symbol value of the gesture…, which is what Jesus, clearly intended to do by performing this action.

Hugh McNichol is a Catholic author that writes on Catholic religious subjects. He writes daily @

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