Why foot-washing still shocks us

Foot-washing has attracted more attention among Catholics recently than at any time in the past 1,500 years. Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has emphasised the practice both in his actions and, lately, in his writing.

He attracted global media attention when, on his first Holy Thursday as pope, he washed the feet of men and women at a juvenile detention centre on the outskirts of Rome. Then at the beginning of this year he issued new rules governing the foot-washing rite, insisting that it should not be restricted to men.

The Pope’s guidance will be put into effect around the world for the first time next week. It is therefore a good time to take stock of the practice, its origins and background, and to reflect on what is has to offer us today as disciples.

If you lived in the hot, dusty world of sandals before asphalt roads, when animals provided the only motive power other than your own feet, there would be nothing so welcoming after even a short journey than a chance to wash your feet.

Given that such a journey is always hard on the legs and back, an even better welcome would be if you could sit down and have someone wash your feet for you.

The literature of antiquity abounds with references to foot-washing, but it is enough to mention two examples.

In Genesis 18 we have the story of the wondrous visit of the Lord, in the form of three men, to Abraham at Mamre. The first sign of welcome is that Abraham arranges for the visitors’ feet to be washed. The other example is from the Rule of St Benedict on the welcome to be shown to guests. When travellers arrive at Benedictine monasteries they are to be given water to wash their hands, and the abbot and some of the community are to wash the guests’ feet. Continue reading

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is the author of Washing Feet: Imitating the Example of Jesus in the Liturgy Today (Liturgical Press).
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