Commanded to serve

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | March 18, 2016

Why Holy Thursday is sometimes called ‘Maundy Thursday’

You may have heard of Holy Thursday called “Maundy Thursday,” but do you know why? It has something to do with a ceremony during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper that is called the pedilavium?

This year, the pedilavium — the “washing of the feet” — will take on a new dimension. In January, Pope Francis changed the rubric of the Mass for the day and asked that both men and women have their feet washed at the Mass of The Lord’s Supper.

On Jan. 21, Pope Francis wrote that, “After careful consideration, I have decided to make a change to the Roman Missal. I therefore decree that the section according to which those persons chosen for the washing of the feet must be men or boys, so that from now on the pastors of the church may choose the participants in the rite from among all the members of the People of God.”

Now, this probably won’t change many things in local parishes because, since 1987, the U.S. bishops’ conference has determined that the words in the Roman Missal — “the pre-chosen men” — could be taken to mean both men and women, “in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the church and to the world.”

Jesus’ washing of the feet of the apostles (found in Jn 13:1-15) gives Holy Thursday one of its many names: “Maundy Thursday.” (Other names include Green Thursday, Sheer Thursday and Covenant Thursday). It is often confusing for Catholics to hear other Christian churches refer to “Holy Thursday” as “Maundy Thursday.” However, it might feel more familiar if we realize that the word “Maundy” comes from Jesus’ own words in John’s Gospel after he washed their feet: “Mandatum novum do vobis …” I give you a new commandment: love one another” (13:34).

This has come to be known as “the great mandate,” from the Latin verb mandere, which means “to make a commitment.” Washing someone’s feet shows a commitment to care for them, or at least offer hospitality — as was the Middle Eastern custom of washing guests’ feet from ancient times. (Abraham washed the feet of his three visitors — who turned out to be divine visitors — in Gn 18:4.)

Washing feet continued as a part of church ritual from the apostles onward, though not always in the same form as we might see it today.

For example, St. Augustine mentioned the practice in the fourth century. In the fifth century, St. Benedict incorporated it into his rule of life for his monks. All of them — from the abbot downward — were required to take their turns at washing the feet of guests in a ceremony held every Saturday in each abbey because “in our guests Christ himself is honored and received.” However, by 694, the Council of Toledo noted that some churches — for various reasons, including “slackness” — no longer washed feet on Holy Thursday.

Records from 12th century Rome show that the pope washed the feet of 12 subdeacons after Holy Thursday Mass and then washed the feet of 13 poor men after his dinner. Eventually, the ceremony evolved to where the pope washed the feet of cardinals only. By the 17th century, the “Ceremonial of Bishops” required bishops to wash and kiss the feet of 13 poor men, after giving them a meal. The 13 represented Christ and his Twelve Apostles. In subsequent decades, clerics took the place of the poor during the ceremony.

Other ceremonies began to develop during the middle of the second millennium. The church’s foot washing ceremonies were adopted by several monarchs in Europe. The kings, and some queens, would offer food and money to a selected group of the poor each year — most often 12 or 13 men.

This custom, sometimes called “the Royal Maundy,” continued into the 20th century. On April 16, 1905, The San Francisco Call newspaper reported on the courts of the Austrian Hungarian emperor, Franz Joseph I, and the Spanish king, Alfonso XIII, having the annual washing of the feet of “12 beggars.” The paper described the elaborate ceremonials from 1904, which included a meal for the 12 men and either German traditional costumes or elegant black coats and silk top hats worn by the chosen group.

The courts of Vienna and Madrid disappeared in the 20th century. While the monarchy was restored in Spain in 1975, the Maundy ceremony was not. A Royal Maundy ceremony continues in England, just as it has since the 17th century.

According to the British royal mint, as far back as the 13th century, members of the royal family ritually distributed money and gifts to the poor before Easter. Henry IV (who took the throne in 1399) “began the practice of relating the number of recipients of gifts to the sovereign’s age, and … the event became known as the Royal Maundy.” The money distributed became known as “Maundy Money” and is specially minted. By the 18th century, the foot washing had disappeared and the gifts of food and clothing were replaced entirely by Maundy Money.

This year, Queen Elizabeth will again distribute Maundy Money. According to the website of British monarchy, Maundy coins have not changed since 1670, and consist of four coins bearing the queen’s image. They are sterling silver and are placed in red or white purses to be distributed to the number of people equaling the queen’s age — this year, that will be 90 people.

Maundy money was first distributed only in London, often at Westminster Abbey. However, early in her reign, Queen Elizabeth decided to choose a different venue each year for the Maundy distribution. Last year, Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, distributed 89 purses of Royal Maundy to men and women gathered at Sheffield Cathedral (about 170 miles north of London).

It was Pope Pius XII, in 1955, who returned the practice of washing feet to the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper. It was also when he moved the celebration of that Mass back to the evening. At that time, the feet of 12 men were washed. While listing an exact number of people whose feet are washed was deleted from the directives after the 1970 liturgical reforms that followed Vatican II, most often the number was 12.

Today, the Roman Missal states that, “after the homily, where a pastoral reason suggests it, the washing of feet follows.” This indicates that foot washing, while preferred, is optional. Archbishop Arthur Roche, of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, confirmed the lack of any obligation for the ceremony after Pope Francis issued his January decree.

Whenever the washing of feet takes place, it should serve, as Pope Francis wrote, to “express more fully the meaning of Jesus’ gesture in the Cenacle, his giving of himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, his limitless charity.”

Sources:;; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”;; “Christianity Today”;; “Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia, vol. 1”;; and


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