Q: What is a priest, in a one-priest parish, to do on Holy Thursday when he cannot kneel down for the Washing of Feet? What are the options? — J.K., Opelika, Alabama
A: This is probably going to be an increasing difficulty for many priests in the coming years.
The first, and simplest, option is to omit the rite altogether. Although many are unaware of the fact, the Washing of Feet is an optional rite. The rubrics of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper say, “Depending on pastoral circumstances, the washing of feet may follow the homily.” Certainly, at times it seems that, in liturgy, nothing is more obligatory than an option. But in this case if the priest is no longer physically up to handling the Washing of Feet, then he may leave it out.
If he is loath to forgo the Washing of Feet, given the pastoral value of this once-a-year rite, it is possible to set things up so that those whose feet are to be washed sit on an elevated base so as to be more readily accessible to the priest. This was the system adopted by Pope John Paul II in the latter years of his pontificate when Parkinson’s disease impeded his kneeling and bending over.
If setting up an elevated base for 12 people is too complicated, then the number can be reduced to fit the space. They could also rotate by two’s or three’s after their feet have been washed, provided that the process can be carried out with pause and decorum.
As a rule the men whose feet are to be washed should be advised ahead of time; this is especially required when the celebrant has some physical difficulty. A practice session before Mass can be very helpful in ensuring that the rite runs smoothly and with the dignity and solemnity required by the moment and importance of the celebration.
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