Archbishop includes women in Holy Thursday foot washing

SOUTH END — After receiving criticism from some Catholics and the media last year for washing the feet of 12 men on Holy Thursday, Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley sought clarification from the Vatican and decided to include women in the rite this year.

On March 24 the archbishop washed the feet of 10 men and women but did not mention the controversy at the Holy Thursday Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Instead, he reached out to Spanish-speaking Catholics by having a bilingual Mass and focused his homily on the Eucharist.

God was preparing for the Eucharist when he sent manna to feed the Israelites, when Melchisedech offered the bread and the wine in the book of Genesis, when Abraham offered his son Isaac and on the night before the crucifixion during the Last Supper, Archbishop O’Malley said in his homily.

Jesus washed all of the apostles feet, knowing that Judas would betray him, Peter would deny him and many of the others would run away when it became “too dangerous to be Jesus’ friend,” he said.

"He wanted to teach us what the Eucharist is about. It's about God making a gift of Himself to us. It is about love," he added.

"Twelve frightened men who feel that death is hovering near, crowd around this carpenter rabbi whose hand is lifted over a piece of bread and a cup of wine," he said. "How futile it seems when already the mob has armed itself with clubs, when in a few hours Jesus will be handed over, tortured, laughed at and condemned to death."

"The apostles knew it was the Last Supper, but Jesus knew it was not the last but the first, the first Eucharist," he said.

Jesus launched the Eucharist with the words “Do this in memory of me” and the Church has obeyed that gentle command for over 2000 years, he said.

"Somewhere in the world at every instance, the Mass is being celebrated in whatever language in the most sumptuous basilica or the humblest chapel. Jesus, the Bread of Life, comes down from heaven. God gives us this precious gift. God so loved the world that He sends His only Son. And He sends Him again and again and again in each Eucharist," he added.

The Eucharist is not a ritual or a symbol Catholics celebrate, he continued.

"The Eucharist is our life. As we have seen, the Eucharist calls us to community, to service, to wash each others' feet. It constantly beckons us to a life of fidelity. The Eucharist is there as a constant call to a life of grace," he said. "When we have sinned and strayed from God's path, it is often hunger for the Eucharist that beguiles us back to God."

The Eucharist was given to us so that we might feel a special solidarity with one another instead of being selfish, apathetic individuals, the archbishop said.

"The Eucharist is the food of martyrs, it is the strength of missionaries, it's the purity of virgins, the medicine that heals broken hearts and dispels fear and doubt. The Eucharist is source of our unity and strength for mission and service and love. Today, on this Holy Thursday, we ask God to strengthen our love for this gift -- to give us that Eucharistic amazement that the Holy Father speaks of, that the saints had," he added.

Ann Gillis, a parishioner of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, said she enjoyed Archbishop O’Malley’s homily and was glad to see the apparent outreach to the Hispanic community by incorporating Spanish in the Holy Thursday Mass.

Gillis, an usher and member of her parish council, had her feet washed in past years by Cardinal Bernard F. Law and Bishop Richard G. Lennon while he headed the archdiocese.

"I think it's only fair that women have their feet washed," she said.

In August 2004, “at the time of the ad limina visit to Rome, the archbishop sought clarification on the liturgical requirements of the rite of foot washing from the Congregation for Divine Worship, which has the responsibility for administering the liturgical law of the Church,” said an archdiocesan statement released in March. “The Congregation affirmed the liturgical requirement that only the feet of men be washed at the Holy Thursday ritual, which recalls Christ’s service to the apostles who would become the first priests of the Church.”

"The Congregation did, however, provide for the archbishop to make a pastoral decision concerning his practice of the rite if such a decision would be helpful to the faithful of the archdiocese," the statement added. "Archbishop O'Malley has determined that he will participate in a modified rite of foot washing at the Cathedral this year. The participants in the rite will include men and women from the Cathedral parish and from social service agencies providing support to community members in need."

In a letter published in The Pilot last April, the archbishop responded to those who supported the washing of women’s feet, saying that for the last 34 years, he has washed the feet of 12 men, representing the 12 apostles, on Holy Thursday.

"It has never been an issue with my parishes," he wrote. "Different people have different preferences, but all have respected my wish to follow the rubric."

Archbishop O’Malley also responded to a statement he made in his Holy Thursday homily last year, about feminism being one of the influences on baby boomers.

"Feminism is a very elastic term, and I did not define it or try to categorize it. Other influences I mentioned were obviously negative, and so my comment was construed as an attack on feminism," he wrote. "There is a feminism which is a Christian imperative and invokes promoting the rights and prerogatives of women, such as equal pay for equal work."

The archbishop maintained that he has always supported equal pay for women, ran an underground railroad for battered and exploited women, has appointed women to the position of chancellor and defended the liturgical roles of women, including lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and altar servers.

"It has been my good fortune always to work closely with very strong women whose gifts have enriched my life and ministry," he wrote.