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O'Malley to wash women's feet in rite

Page 2 of 2 -- Foot-washing has been a part of Holy Thursday liturgies since the 13th century. According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the ritual had been abandoned by many parishes over the years, but was restored in 1955 by Pope Pius XII.

The Roman Missal, a book containing liturgical instructions, uses a Latin word for man when describing participants in the foot-washing ceremony. But the US bishops conference in 1987 declared that ''it has become customary in many places to invite both men and women to be participants in this rite in recognition of the service that should be given by all the faithful to the church and to the world."

O'Malley said last year that he did not wash the feet of women because ''the liturgy is a teacher of our doctrine and should not be tampered with."

''I have always defended the liturgical roles of women, and routinely there are women lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and altar girls at my liturgies," he wrote in the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper. ''But those who know me know that I take the church's liturgical directives most seriously. Consequently, for the last 34 years I have washed the feet of 12 men on Holy Thursday who represent the 12 apostles. It has never been an issue with my parishes.

Different people have different preferences, but all have respected my wish to follow the rubric."

O'Malley's practice, however, became an issue in Boston, where he was installed as archbishop in summer 2003. Last year, during his first Holy Week as archbishop, the combination of the all-male foot-washing and the mention of feminism in a context that some considered pejorative angered many women. O'Malley responded in the Pilot, writing, ''It is of concern that some people seem determined to make our liturgical services a political battleground," but ''I am sorry if this controversy has been upsetting to our Catholic women."

O'Malley promised to consult with Rome, and yesterday his spokeswoman said the Congregation for Divine Worship, which oversees liturgical practices, had suggested the archbishop make whatever decision he thought was best for Boston.

''The Congregation [for Divine Worship] affirmed the liturgical requirement that only the feet of men be washed at the Holy Thursday ritual." However, the Congregation did ''provide for the archbishop to make a pastoral decision."

O'Malley will participate in the foot-watching ceremony during a bilingual Holy Thursday Mass at 8 p.m. in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston's South End.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com. 

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