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O'Malley to wash women's feet in rite

Consults Vatican, changes policy

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, who angered many Catholic women last year by inviting only men to participate in a ritual Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony, has decided that this year he will wash the feet of women and men.

O'Malley's spokeswoman said yesterday that, as he promised last year, the archbishop had consulted with Vatican officials about his practice of washing the feet only of men on Holy Thursday, a ritual that imitates Jesus's washing of the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. The Vatican said, according to the spokeswoman, that O'Malley could wash women's feet, as is the practice of many priests, including O'Malley's predecessor, Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

''Archbishop O'Malley has determined that he will participate in a modified rite of foot-washing at the [Cathedral of the Holy Cross] this year," said the spokeswoman, Ann Carter. ''The participants in the rite will include men and women from the cathedral parish and from social service agencies."

O'Malley's practice of washing only men's feet last year upset some Catholics, in part because it occurred just days after O'Malley, in a Holy Week homily, cited feminism as a social factor that makes it difficult for the church to reach baby boomers. He listed feminism alongside Woodstock, the drug culture, the sexual revolution, the breakdown of authority, and divorce.

His decision to wash women's feet this year drew immediate praise from advocates for a greater role for women in the Catholic Church. In a practice similar to that of Orthodox Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and some schools of Buddhism, the Catholic Church does not ordain women as priests.

''I really applaud his flexibility and his willingness to interact with the Vatican over this and to reflect on the needs of the archdiocese," said Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College who has written about feminist theology and sex and gender ethics. ''This will be a wonderful sign, an appropriate Easter sign of hope and unity."

Cahill said O'Malley's foot-washing practices had resonated negatively with Catholic women because of concerns about the role of women in the church.

''This [decision] has much larger significance for the issue of gender and women in the church," Cahill said. ''It represents one of the leaders in the church who is willing to become more flexible about liturgical roles for women and who is embodying a more biblical inclusion of women as disciples. It has fantastic symbolic value, and others will welcome it as much as I do."

Among those welcoming the change is the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful, which last year criticized O'Malley and the then-archbishop of Atlanta, John F. Donoghue, for washing the feet of men only.

''After the omission of last year that was so painful to Catholic women, it is consoling that Archbishop O'Malley is sensitive to the issues that confront women in the church," said Voice of the Faithful spokeswoman Suzanne Morse. ''This is an opportunity to include women in an important ceremony during Holy Week, and we are gratified that the archdiocese has had the forethought to make this known ahead of time."

Foot-washing has been a part of Holy Thursday liturgies since the 13th century. According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the ritual had been abandoned by many parishes over the years, but was restored in 1955 by Pope Pius XII.

The Roman Missal, a book containing liturgical instructions, uses a Latin word for man when describing participants in the foot-washing ceremony. But the US bishops conference in 1987 declared that ''it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the church and to the world."

O'Malley said last year that he did not wash the feet of women because ''the liturgy is a teacher of our doctrine and should not be tampered with."

''I have always defended the liturgical roles of women, and routinely there are women lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and altar girls at my liturgies," he wrote in the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper. ''But those who know me know that I take the church's liturgical directives most seriously. Consequently, for the last 34 years I have washed the feet of 12 men on Holy Thursday who represent the 12 apostles. It has never been an issue with my parishes.

Different people have different preferences, but all have respected my wish to follow the rubric."

O'Malley's practice, however, became an issue in Boston, where he was installed as archbishop in summer 2003. Last year, during his first Holy Week as archbishop, the combination of the all-male foot-washing and the mention of feminism in a context that some considered pejorative angered many women. O'Malley responded in the Pilot, writing, ''It is of concern that some people seem determined to make our liturgical services a political battleground," but ''I am sorry if this controversy has been upsetting to our Catholic women."

O'Malley promised to consult with Rome, and yesterday his spokeswoman said the Congregation for Divine Worship, which oversees liturgical practices, had suggested the archbishop make whatever decision he thought was best for Boston.

''The Congregation [for Divine Worship] affirmed the liturgical requirement that only the feet of men be washed at the Holy Thursday ritual." However, the Congregation did ''provide for the archbishop to make a pastoral decision."

O'Malley will participate in the foot-watching ceremony during a bilingual Holy Thursday Mass at 8 p.m. in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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