So why stick to 12?


Pope Francis, after careful consideration we are told, has changed the rules for the rite of foot washing so that women as well as men may number amongst the 12. The Pope has clear authority to do this and we must accept the change in good grace. But it does leave me with a question. But first an explanation of the two views that have come to exist within the church surrounding the foot washing ceremony…

The traditional teaching, which I would have strongly emphasised until yesterday, recalls that Jesus did not wash the feet of all his general disciples but specifically chose the apostolic 12. He was thus being an exemplar – teaching them that loving service must always be at the heart of the priesthood. This link to the priesthood makes obvious why the representatives were male.

A more modern understanding, the one which Pope Francis clearly favours,  encourages us to look beyond priesthood to emphasise that this call to loving service exists for all the faithful. Clearly we may, under this understanding, include women as well as men amongst the feet being washed.

I have no real issue with either point because both are obviously true. Priests do need to remember they are called to serve in love in a special way. The faithful also need reminding that this call to loving service does not end in the sanctuary. So no sweat there…

My question is more nuanced. Now the Pope has done away with the former teaching to emphasis the more recent idea…. then why do we still choose 12? A number so clearly pointing us to consideration of the priestly ministry.

It seems a very confusing oversight to me. The risk being that the symbolism and the action are now in conflict with each other resulting in mixed messages being sent out. It doesn’t take a genius to realise it will be jumped on by modernists to push for women priests. If they can represent a man amongst the 12 on Maundy Thursday why not at the altar when celebrating the sacraments themselves?

If we have 12 because Jesus chose 12, it strikes me they should be men as well. For Jesus also did that.  But if the point is not about the 12 then we should presumably wash everyone’s feet or any arbitrary number for practical purposes. But not 12.

Does anyone have a satisfactory answer? Because people in my congregation are going to be unsettled by this change. Our experience of innovations in the Anglican church was not a happy experience that built up our faith. We are therefore, understandably, a little fearful of changes to sacred tradition and biblical witness.

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13 thoughts on “So why stick to 12?

  1. I can’t help but recall the conversations that were circulating at the point of that first Mandatum. Pope Francis appeared to be deliberately breaking the rules- the rules he has just changed, but much of the chatter was about whether he knew what the rules were and whether anyone had the courage to point out to him what he was actually doing?
    This seems like the most pointless piece of Papal legislation I have ever witnessed. Everyone who was minded to ignore the precept and the reason behind it, washed the feet of women anyway (perhaps this is why Pope Francis did it that first year). A better trick would have been to teach people what it means and why it is done at all.

  2. What the pope is doing is very clear, and it reflects Christ’s example of humility and service. It is a gesture which embraces all of humanity, not a narrow and gender-limited one. In the past he has washed the feet of six men and six women which seems absolutely right.

    He is a wonderful pope, you should have more faith in him.

    1. If he delights one with your world views and hatred of conventional Christianity then something must be amiss Guido. Fortunately I think you would find he holds all the normative beliefs you so detest. So best you stick to the media spin instead…

  3. The old joke of ‘is the Pope Catholic?’ now takes on a different and serious nature because he seems to be more protestant than the Vicar of Christ or am I being alarmist?

    The good news is that the washing of feet is purely voluntary and not a requirement in the liturgy of the Mass of the Lord supper so there is no need to do it at all, secondly the Traditional Mass which I attend is unaffected, we can remain true to our Catholic traditions unaffected by the protestanisation of the liturgy over the past 45 years. Catholic teaching of the ages for me not the trendy secular version served up by our Prelates who seem to have lost the plot!

    And if any Prelates are reading this whilst I am in an angry mood give us our Holy days back!

    God Bless to all,


  4. Perhaps you should cling to the fact that, while the supreme legislator has now given permission for the inclusion of women among those whose feet are to be washed, he has not yet made it obligatory.

    Personally, I find these “inclusive” gestures almost unbearably patronising, like the near-abolition of the phrase “the brotherhood of man” because women are deemed to lack the intelligence to understand themselves to be included in it.

  5. First of all, I would ask what the Book of Divine Worship has to say about this. Surely there are provisions for the Holy Triduum there, aren’t they? As far as I know, you are not bound by rules that apply to the Roman Missal.
    Of course, the Mandatum as part of Maundy Thursday liturgy is a quite recent innovation, as is it’s celebration in all parish churches. Up to Pius XII, it was exclusively celebrated by bishops and abbots, or, to speak in more general terms, by ecclesiastical superiors washing their subordinates’ feet. It was mirrored in the kings and the emperor washing the feet of beggars (in Austria until 1918; in the UK, the Maundy Money is all that is left of it).
    So, if I were a parish priest, I would just do away with the mandatum for good. If I were a bishop, I would wash the feet of twelve priests. If I were the pope, I would cut the mandatum out of the Maundy Thursday Eucharist and make it a rite of it’s own again.
    But I ain’t, so I won’t…

  6. I find Pope Francis’ alteration of a rule which he always publicly disobeyed anyway, confusing in many ways, but I am not sure it is quite right to characterise the two interpretations of the mandatum as a “traditional” vs. a “more modern” understanding.

    Essential reading on the history of this rite is to be found in “Festa Paschalia” by Philip Goddard. In the twelfth century, the Pope performed two mandatums (mandata?) on Holy Thursday: he washed the feet of twelve subdeacons (clearly associating these clerics with the college of apostles); but in a separate ceremony he also washed the feet of thirteen poor men, as a sign of apostolic charity. Why thirteen? I’m not sure any reason for this number has been recorded. At the same epoch, the monks of the Lateran basilica, taking it in turns, washed the feet of a hundred poor men! So, if the essential signification of the rite is to do with charity, perhaps the number is immaterial. The poor men were always poor *men*, not because they were playing the part of the Twelve, so much as because until the swinging Sixties most people would have been scandalised by the sight of a bishop or priest touching and (according to the rubrics) kissing the bare feet of a woman. Am I the only person prudish enough still to find this a slightly disturbing idea?

    Later custom has conflated the two mandatum rites into a single action, and the two different symbolisms have been in what one might call a creative tension ever since. (A thrifty rubric in the old Ceremonial of Bishops states that a bishop, if he chooses to wash the feet of clerics rather than poor men, should omit the customary gift of alms to those being washed. I don’t know what the clerics thought of this!)

    I doubt this is a satisfactory answer, but others may have more to offer. Incidentally, I live in a parish so small, and so short of men, that our parish priest has never been able to rustle up more than half a dozen men for the mandatum!

  7. The thing is we have to get used to spiritually lifting ourselves onto a higher plane – Heaven. Jesus knew when He walked the earth that 2000 years plus ahead, the life on earth would be vastly different for many souls. God is always preparing us for Heaven not here. Here is so transitory. He washed the disciples feet to show them the way, the sublime teaching of humility for one another. If He had wanted only mens feet to be washed He would have said so, He is perfect in His teaching. We assumed because the apostles were men the feet washing was meant for just men! There are no male and female in Heaven, just souls. Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel are neither male or female, they are angels, created with no gender. We like to portray them as strong and therefore male. It’s a human thing. When we leave here we leave gender behind, the spirit takes over and we are just souls, pure spirits. God is neither male or female He Is…… I Am. We must learn to think through the heart and not the mind for the heart in us is the God in us.

  8. Did the Pope disobey the previous rule? I might well be wrong but did he wash feet other than those of men during Mass?

    On a more general note the recent practice of the past 60 years or so of washing only men’s feet during Mass has always been a symbolic gesture. If it were the “real thing” we’d have had 12 Bishops round every Maundy Thursday……

  9. The rubrics of the Roman Missal do not specify the number of feet to be washed; it doesn’t have to be twelve!

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