Why Do Priests Wash Feet on Holy Thursday?

At many Holy Thursday Catholic Masses, the presider washes the feet of twelve people, usually members of the congregation chosen in advance. This is a very visible departure from the usual liturgy. Why do we do this?

The most obvious reason is that we do it in memory of Jesus’ actions during the Last Supper: during their Passover meal, Jesus got up from the table and began to wash the feet of His disciples (cf. John 13:4-17). In Jesus’ times, washing the feet of guests would have been common practice – people traveled by walking, often in sandals, and feet got hot, dirty, and uncomfortable. A good host would ensure his guests’ feet were washed. However, this unsavory task was typically performed by a servant, not the host himself. In fact, Simon Peter initially attempted to rebuff Jesus’ offer to wash his feet, most likely because he considered it disrespectful to expect Jesus to wash someone’s dirty feet (John 13:6-8).

By insisting on performing this task Himself, Jesus was offering a powerful illustration of his own role as a servant leader – and His expectation that His followers would also serve others. Jesus’ expectation of His disciples – and of all His followers, to this day – was that they would give of themselves for others. In fact, Jesus concluded this activity by saying “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15 NRSV).

Although every Catholic Mass includes a remembrance of the Last Supper when the priest consecrates the Eucharist, Holy Thursday is the day we specifically remember and celebrate the Last Supper and this mandate that Jesus gave His followers. An alternate name for Holy Thursday is “Maundy Thursday,” which is believed to have come from the Latin word mandatum, meaning command – referring to Jesus’ command that we love and serve each other in His name.

When the priest washes the feet of members of his flock, it is meant to recall Jesus’ actions and remind us that this mandate still applies to the Church. In a spirit of humility, the priest is illustrating his commitment to serving those he is called to lead.