Pope overturns tradition to allow women in Lenten foot-washing rite

Thu Jan 21, 2016 1:14pm EST
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By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Thursday overturned centuries of tradition that banned women from a foot-washing service during Lent, upsetting conservatives and delighting women's rights activists.

Until now, only men or boys were formally allowed to take part in the service, in which a priest washes and kisses the feet of 12 people to commemorate Jesus' gesture of humility toward his apostles on the night before he died.

But in a letter to the Vatican department that regulates rites of worship, Francis said the group should be made up of "all members of the people of God," including women.

The ritual takes place in Catholic parishes around the world the world on Holy Thursday, four days before Easter. While some parishes in the 1.2 billion member Church had already included women and girls, most have stuck to the written rules, particularly in developing countries.

"This is great news, a wonderful step forward," said Erin Hanna, co-director of the U.S.-based Woman's Ordination Conference, which promotes a female Catholic priesthood.

"This means that change is possible, doors seem to be opening in the Vatican," she told Reuters.

Since his election in 2013, the pope has included women when he has presided at the foot-washing services, continuing a practice he started when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

He has held these services in a home for the elderly and even included Muslims when he held them in Italian jails, outraging traditionalists.   Continued...

Pope Francis kisses a foot of a disabled person at the S. Maria della Provvidenza church in Rome, during a Holy Thursday celebration, in this April 17, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/Files