Limited Veneration of the Cross

And More on the Washing of Feet

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ROME, MAY 3, 2011 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Recently, at a service of the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday, the veneration of the cross was limited to the priests, lectors, Eucharistic ministers and catechists of the parish, the rest of the people being told that they could, if they so desired, venerate the cross after the service was over. This practice seemed to several of us to be offensive on two counts: 1) If veneration of the cross is a spiritual good for all the faithful (and there were many there), then surely it is more appropriate to expedite the veneration by having more than one cross at several places in the church, much like the distribution of Communion, rather than by having only one cross and excluding the vast majority from veneration within the liturgy — which sends a message to the faithful that this is really just a ceremony and its value is relative; and 2) It seems that it creates a «special class» of faithful who warrant the opportunity to venerate the cross within the liturgy, while the «common folk» do not. Are there specific guidelines regarding these concerns? A third point was that the cross was without the corpus, something we had not seen before either. Thank you. — M.B., Chicago

A: The rubrics for the veneration of the cross allow for two possibilities, depending on the number of people. Traditionally, only one cross is used for veneration, which is the one the priest has carried in or has unveiled in the sanctuary, as the case may be.

Preferably, all the faithful should venerate the cross individually, approaching it in a kind of procession, making a simple genuflection before the cross or some other customary sign of veneration, such as kissing the cross.

If the number of faithful makes individual veneration impossible, then the priest may choose the second option. The rubrics state the following: «The priests may take the cross, after some of the faithful have venerated it, and stand in the center in front of the altar. In a few words he invites the people to venerate the cross and then holds it up briefly for them to worship in silence.»

One popular missal for the faithful contains a rubric saying that «In the United States, if pastoral reasons suggest that there be individual veneration of the Cross even though the number of people is very large, a second or third cross may be used.» However, I have not been able to corroborate that this rubric is still valid. The website of the U.S. bishops’ conference affirms the rule of using only one cross and makes no mention of this «American exception.»

Therefore, far from trying to suggest two classes of Catholics, by proposing individual veneration after the celebration, the pastor was probably using the second option out of necessity while doing his best to allow the greatest number of faithful the possibility of personally venerating the cross. I think that the idea of fomenting a sense of privilege was nowhere in his thoughts, least of all on Good Friday when the idea of Christ dying for all of us sinners is brought to the fore.

It is true that the rubrics do not foresee this possibility, and indeed the private veneration after concluding the celebration has more the nature of an act of personal devotion than a liturgical act. At the same time, I do not believe that this practice offends the sense of the liturgy, and it is quite common to do this in places where priests have to celebrate two Good Friday liturgies in separate parishes.

Finally, while I personally hold that it is preferable to use a cross with a corpus, the possibility of using a simple cross is contemplated in several documents published by the U.S. bishops’ conference. I have not found anything in universal law that could decide the question one way or the other, although my own interpretation is that when the liturgical documents mention a cross they almost invariably mean a crucifix.

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Follow-up: Options for the Washing of Feet

There were several queries regarding the Holy Thursday washing of feet when an elderly priest is impeded from bending over (see April 12).

One reader asked, «Could a solution be that the chairman of the pastoral council helps with washing the feet?»

I do not believe this would be a solution. Although a priest other than the principal celebrant could perform this duty, only a priest, as representative of Christ during the Lord’s Supper, is foreseen. No matter how worthy the chair of the pastoral council might be, he (or she) cannot represent Christ in this particular ritual context that evokes his service to the apostles.

Other readers asked if the number could be more than 12. While there is nothing specified in the norms, the number 12 is the logical maximum as this corresponds to the number of the apostles. A larger number is likely to change the meaning of the rite as representative of Christ’s act.

In a similar vein a reader suggested that hand washing could substitute foot washing as an alternative. Once more, this is not what Our Lord did. Also, in liturgical tradition hand washing usually symbolizes personal purification rather than service. As another reader once observed, «The only hand washing mentioned in the Scriptures around Holy Week is that done by Pontius Pilate — hardly a positive example to be followed.»

Finally, several correspondents mentioned that «Father did not address the ‘hot’ topic of women having their feet washed. Is this permitted?»

We have already dealt amply with this subject in earlier columns on March 23, 2004, and April 6, 2004, as well as on March 28, 2006, and April 11, 2006.

As can be seen from these columns the present legal status of this question is so confused that one can only conclude that the law is like the English language. It is written in one way and pronounced in another.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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