Newsletter Subscribe
Australian Catholics Subscribe

In service of all soles

Genevieve Peters  |  14 February 2019

The Washing of the Feet has long been one of our Easter rituals in the Catholic Church. But what’s special about the way it’s been used in recent years by Pope Francis.

When Jesus first began to wash Peter’s feet, the disciple was taken aback. 

‘You shall never wash my feet’, Peter said.

Jesus replied, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’ (John 13:8). 

Willing, of course, to be close to Jesus, Peter embraced the washing of his feet.

In the thousands of years since that time, this ritual has largely influenced and contributed to the Catholic faith. What is its meaning? Why is its effect on our society? Most importantly, how has it changed the Catholic world in recent years? 


It might help if we begin by exploring why Jesus did this at all.

The washing of the feet was likely influenced by physical factors. Israel in March is a problematic location for bare or sandalled feet aiming to stay clean. As with many of Jesus’ actions, he saw a problem and created an opportunity to make a point.

A largely inconsequential yet bothersome issue was changed by Jesus into an opportunity to get closer to his followers. By placing himself in the role of the servant, he encouraged them to consider the importance of friendship, love and respect. In turn, they would be encouraged become more amiable, loving and respectful.


The ritual of the Washing of the Feet has continued in the Church.

On Holy Thursday, 12 people are chosen to act in the place of the apostles to have their feet washed. The tradition continues even in Rome, where the Pope takes on the role of Christ in washing people’s feet.

Pope Benedict XVI made a change to the ritual in 2007, when he selected 12 lay people to be part of the ceremony in Rome rather than 12 priests as was traditional. In 2008, he noted that ‘washing one another’s feet… urges us to purify our memory constantly, forgiving one another whole-heartedly’.

Pope Francis has taken the ritual even further. In 2013, he spent Holy Thursday at a juvenile detention facility, the Casal del Marmo prison, where he washed the feet of young offenders. Most radical was his decision to wash the feet of two girls, and the fact that two of those whose feet were washed were Muslim. Both of these were new changes to the tradition.


In light of his changes to the Washing of the Feet, Pope Francis expressed in a 2013 homily, ‘It is the example set by Our Lord. It’s important for Him to wash their feet, because among us the one who is highest up must be at the service of others. This is a symbol, it is a sign – washing your feet means I am at your service.’

These recent changes provide an insight into the role of the Church in a changing society. Christianity is not simply a rigid system of ethics and beliefs set in stone. The Catholic Church has proven its ability to adapt to change in a way that only highlights its attention to Jesus’ message.

Christ asked us to wash one another’s feet in order to better understand Him and live a fuller life. He asked us to pay attention to those that are struggling and spiritually lost. Pope Francis has repeatedly showcased how we can do this through how he uses the ritual of the Washing of the Feet on Holy Thursdays.

Changes to the Washing of the Feet have been dubbed controversial. Far from being contentious, however, these changes were made in hopes of highlighting the kindness and empathy Jesus wanted us to feel for one another.

This is why He washed Peter’s feet at the last supper. This is why the Pope washes the feet of others. This is how we become better people.

Jesus showed us that being a leader means understanding those who serve you. By stepping into their shoes, perhaps – or by washing their feet. 

Genevieve Peters is a member of our young writers' community.




Request permissions to reuse this article

This website uses cookies to give you the best, most relevant experience.

Using this website means you are okay with this.

You can change your cookies settings at any time and find out more about them by following this link