On January 6, 2016, Pope Francis issued a new decree stating that women should be included in foot washing rites held on Holy Thursday. For many Catholics around the world, this was already a practice. But for others, the papal decree opened a new door for women’s participation in an important rite of the Church.

On March 28, 2016, FutureChurch launched a survey asking Catholics to share their experience regarding the new decree to see what, if any, effect it had in their parish.

The survey participants numbered 620 and came from the United States (88%), Europe (6%), India (3%), Australia (2%) and with 1% marked “other.”

Prior to the 2016 decree, 86% of respondents indicated that they had always included both women and men in the footwashing rite while 10% indicated that their ceremony included men only. The rest either had no footwashing ceremony or marked this question as not applicable.

Most of the 104 comments related to this question reiterated that women and men were included in the foot washing rite. Ten comments indicated that (a) only males were included,(b) the parish chose to eliminate the rite this year because of an expectation that only males would participate or, (c) a parishioner discontinued going because of a change to male only participation. 

Here is a sampling of those comments.

  • Two years ago the Bishop of Madison said only men would have their feet washed. So our parish did not have the rite.
  • Thirty years ago our parish included women in this rite but, in the past 10-15 years it has reverted back to all men.
  • Our Diocese of Charlotte did not allow women to participate. It was to be 12 men lined up with the Pastor doing the washing.
  • My parish did wash the feet of men and women; however, our Bishop Paprocki chose not to do the foot washing ritual because he disagreed with Pope Francis’ encouragement of it.
  • We had discontinued when we went to men only.
  • At my home Parish in Ontario, Canada, we have had women and men foot washing for years but at my parish here in Florida where we are for the winter they have men only.
  • We had no foot washing because it didn’t include women.
  • We used to wash anyone’s feet until our bishop banned anyone except males. Then we stopped washing anyone’s feet. Only seminarians.

Asked about changes in the foot washing rite after the 2016 decree, 7% of respondents indicated that when for the first time, women were introduced into the foot washing rite, the percentage of respondents indicating male-only foot washing rites dropped to 5%. Four (number) respondents indicated that they did not have a foot washing rite for the first time this year, conjecturing that this may have been a way for their pastor to protest the new decree.

A sampling of comments from this question are included below. Some indicated there was a change creating greater inclusion of women. A few indicated that women were still excluded or newly excluded.

  • Our previous pastor in Orange, CA did not wash the feet of women. Our new pastor did, only after I questioned him about it two years ago. Since then he has done it.
  • Our parish washed the feet of women, men and children. When we got a new bishop, he demanded that only men could get their feet washed. Our pastor stopped washing feet until Francis said it is okay.
  • New pastor intended to have only men. After decree, he included men, women, and teenagers.
  • Depends on pastor and whim of bishop. This year all were included for the first time in five years.
  • Our parish had opted out of foot washing from the time the local bishop had banned women until this year.
  • In Florida- still only men! I even wrote the priest here and told him of my wish to have women represented.
  • Men only. Apparently in defiance of Pope Francis.
  • A giant step backwards. For the past 20+ years not only have we had men and women have their feet washed, we also allowed the congregation to wash the feet. This year the congregation was allowed to wash the feet of only 12 men invited. A sad, sad turn of events with a new pastor.

Question # 3 asked if Pope Francis’s new changes and decree raised new awareness about the exclusion of women personally, in the parish or if it was a source of controversy. Fifty-eight percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the changes Pope Francis made to the foot washing rite raised new awareness about the exclusion of women for them personally. Thirty-six percent agreed or strongly agreed that it raised new awareness about the exclusion of women in their parish community. And 7% agreed or strongly agreed the new decree and inclusive rite was a source of controversy in their parish community.

Questions # 4 and # 5 asked respondents if their pastor had addressed the new footwashing decree and inclusive rite explicitly, and if so, how did they characterize the change.  Twelve percent indicated that their priest specifically addressed the new foot washing decree with most characterizing it as a positive change and only less than one percent characterizing it as a negative change.

A thoroughly scientific survey would be useful in understanding the ripple effect of Francis’ changes for women in the Church, but it is clear from this small sampling that it has made a difference. Of those who took the FutureChurch survey, 7% indicated that women were included for the first time. While media reporting was anecdotal, there were several examples of inclusive change. Two Latin Catholic Churches in Kerala, India included women for the first time, and the National Shrine in Washington DC included women in the rite for the first time.

Change at the top of the hierarchy often occurs because of pressure from below. To Francis’s credit, he is responding in small ways to the need to bring women into full and complete partnership alongside their male counterparts. What comes down from the top can have a very positive effect for women at the local level. This decree is proof that even small changes can have a balancing effect in the name of gender justice.