Pope Francis has changed the rules so that a priest may wash the feet of women and others in the community and not just men, as church law had previously decreed.
The change, announced on Jan. 20, reflects Francis’ own groundbreaking gesture when, just a month after his election in 2013, he washed the feet of young people—including women and Muslims—at a youth detention center outside Rome.
That act upset many traditionalists who argued that the pope should follow church law while others say the rules required that only men should be chosen because the rite recreates Jesus’ action at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of his twelve male disciples.
While the official change was announced in a decree issued Thursday by Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican liturgy office that sets rules for celebrating Mass and other rites, the Vatican also released a letter from Francis to Sarah in December 2014 in which he asked him to make changes so that the rite “might fully express the significance of the gesture performed by Jesus at the Last Supper.”
There was no immediate explanation for the lag time.
You can read the official English translation of the decree from the Congregation of Divine Worshop and the Discipline of the Sacraments here.