Tradition has always seen the Last Supper, as portrayed in John and the other Gospels as a revelation of Christ's own priesthood and part of a rite of ordination of the 12, of which the ritual washing was an important part, which is of course intrinsic to the establishment of the 'New and Eternal Covenant'. I like the idea of the Patriarch of Moscow washing the feet of 12 bishops vested in liturgical vestments and wearing their mitres. I have memory of an image of the last supper in a French church with the Apostles at table wearing Latin Rite episcopal regalia, with Judas leaving and his tall mitre falling off his head knocked off his head by the lintel of the door. The Apostles at he Last Supper, including Judas, were Bishops after all.
My mother was an Italian from Pula in present day Slovena, when she was young it was the custom there for anyone with any authority to wash the feet of those who had authority to wash the feet of those he had authority over on Holy Thursday, thus my grandfather would wash the feet of his sons and any male employees and grandmother her daughters and female employees. In England kings washed the feet of poor men, queens poor women, the number varied often related to their age, thus a ninety year old queen would wash the feet 90 of her female subjects. In monastic communities part of the reception of novices is the washing of their feet by the Abbot or Prior. St Benedict of course says that all monastic guests should have their feet washed, as Christ washed the disciples feet. However, in church the idea of 12 males seems always to have been significant.
It seems there are two valid interpretations of this Rite which with the latest CDW instruction grapples with. First it is hieratic, do read this link, a priestly Rite that speaks directly of the nature of the Christian priesthood, secondly it it is Rite of humble service.
I think that it is very significant that most priests, and certainly those of a particular age, are either unable to understand it in the first sense. I remember visiting a Church just before Holy Week and being curious to see a stack of plastic washing-up bowls, I was told, "I get the ministers (EMHC) to wash everyone's feet." I am not actually against this, I think it is wonderful thing to do but not during the Mass of the Lord's Supper. How wonderful if the Pope and every Cardinal in Rome, maybe even 'leprous courtier' washed the feet of pilgrims in St Peter's Square during Lent! Pius V used to do it regularly. Perhaps after the Chrism Mass, which is supposed to happen on Holy Thursday too, local Ordinaries would wash their priests' feet outside their cathedrals and then get them to wash the feet of lay people or notorious sinners, which would be at least a partial restoration of that other great Holy Thursday action, the restoration of public sinners. I heard of a group of Anglican theological students who offered foot washing at a railway station, they were disappointed that no feet were offered them.
Here, since the ambiguity of the Pope's first Holy Thursday and my own increasing inability to get up and down twelve times, it really does hurt, I chose not wash feet then and haven't done since. However I love the texts and the choir had spent ages practising them so we simply place the bowl and towel on the sanctuary step and invited people to come forward and give their Lenten alms for the poor, the resulting collection pays for our soup-run, and it fits in nicely with the idea of the Good Friday collection for the Holy Places and the Easter Collection which in my diocese is a personal gift to the Pastor. I do it is an abuse but it is an elegant one, it is a pastoral solution.
I haven't published all the comments on my previous post, there were so many and some seemed to express deep hurt or anger, which I can understand. I became a Catholic because forty years ago when every other Church seemed to fudge the words of Jesus on divorce and remarriage, the Catholic Church alone defended and proclaimed Jesus' teaching, I was taught this vividly by a couple who were themselves divorced and remarried. So many of the more significant speakers at the Synod seemed to argue against Jesus' explicit teaching. I know that the same fear exists over the proposed Synod that will touch on priestly celibacy, Christ was celibate, the Patristic tradition was that of Apostolic celibacy, people have a fear that Christ and his teaching and the Traditions that unite us to him are being pushed aside in a radical attempt to modernise the Church. I don't if the Holy Father is being realistic and facing up to the existing divisions in the Church, an open debate is better than sniping in corners. I do believe the greatest evil in the Church is a lack of transparency: back-room sell outs, manipulation by gangs of the privileged mafias and lobbies, cover-ups of scandals, denying the faithful their rightful voice. Personally I am enough of an Augustinian to believe that the truth does not need to be defended only in charity released.
I believe too, though sometimes I am tempted by the Evil One to doubt, what Jesus Christ promised his Church: I will be with you until the consummation of the ages. I pray to God I will always believe this.