Pope Francis washing feet

Pope Francis washes the foot of a female inmate last April at Rebibbia prison in Rome as part of a pre-Easter ritual.

L’Osservatore Romano

In a move with ramifications in Madison, Pope Francis is changing church regulations to explicitly allow women to be included in an Easter Week foot-washing ritual.

While Vatican rules for the Holy Thursday rite had long called for only men to participate, some Catholic dioceses, especially in the U.S., had ignored the rule or interpreted it more expansively and already were including women.

That was not the case in the Madison Catholic Diocese, where Bishop Robert Morlino, a staunch traditionalist, had prohibited priests from washing the feet of women. That changed on Thursday.

“I accept this change with loving obedience, as I always would,” Morlino said of the pope’s decision.

Local priests are now free to include women, Morlino said. But they can also still opt to skip the ritual altogether — it has always been optional — or “follow the traditional practice” of washing only male feet, which recalls Jesus having done so for his 12 male apostles, he said.

In a diocese where many progressive Catholics had found the male-only rule disagreeable, Morlino added that he hoped people will avoid “pressure tactics” and allow priests to make “good and prudential” decisions as to how they want to proceed.

“It is my hope that in their outstanding care for the people entrusted to them, the priests will engage serious prayer and reflection in coming to their choice of option,” Morlino said.

The pope’s decision was announced Thursday, and it sent the Catholic world abuzz. The Vatican said the foot-washing 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.”

The change corresponds to the pontiff’s own rule-breaking ways. 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.

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.”

Thursday’s news was received very differently among Catholics.

“It’s fantastic,” said Johanna Hatch of Verona, the immediate past-president of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a national Catholic group that advocates for female priests. “I think it is wonderful that the pope has made it really explicit that women can be involved in this ritual. It recognizes all the important work women do in the church.”

However, Hatch said she would hesitate to assign any larger meaning to the pope’s decision, as “he’s been very explicit that ordination to women is closed.”

For Catholics who are more traditional — sometimes called “hard-identity Catholics” — the rule change was upsetting.

The Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a priest in the Madison Catholic Diocese who blogs under the name “Father Z,” wrote disapprovingly Thursday that the change “could be interpreted to mean that liturgical norms mean very little and, worse, that liturgy means very little.”

Among the followers of his blog, one wrote “it’s a dreadful idea to change a law because people are breaking a law already.” Another called the changes “shocking, troubling and just plain sad.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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