Area priests confused by foot washing letter

MANATEE — A letter from Bishop Frank Dewane on the traditional washing of feet during Holy Week created confusion and controversy among some members of the priesthood in the Diocese of Venice.

On March 26, the roughly 150 priests of the diocese received a letter from Dewane regarding the normal routine of the liturgy for Holy Week.

In that letter, Dewane wrote that the norm for the Holy Thursday liturgy calls for priests to wash the feet of selected men. He followed that up with a statement that in the United States a bishop is permitted to wash the feet of a woman on Holy Thursday if he considers it pastorally necessary.

Several priests were confused by the comments and considered them an order that they no longer could wash women’s feet, said Bob Reddy, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Venice.

Reddy said Dewane was surprised by the controversy his letter created and he addressed it during a service Tuesday in Venice when priests from all parishes retook their priestly vows.

“I know there has been some concerns about the reference to washing of the feet,” Dewane said in a statement relayed by Reddy. “It was my intention just to inform the priests of the diocese about the norm of the liturgy and in no way imply it as an order.”

Since it is accepted that both genders get their feet washed in the United States, a custom that does not hold true for Europe, then washing women’s feet is pastorally necessary in the U.S., Reddy said.

“About five years ago, the Vatican confirmed that,” Reddy said.

JoAnn Urban, mother of Lakewood Ranch resident Karen Barbarito, had her feet washed about 20 years ago in a Catholic church in New York City.

Urban, who lives in Highland Beach on the east coast of Florida and now attends St. Lucy Catholic Church, seemed surprised that there would be any doubt that women will get their feet washed on Holy Thursday.

“Why not?” Urban said. “The Apostles followed Jesus but so did Mary Magdalene. I don’t see the difference.”

Washing the feet of both genders was part of the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Astoria, where Urban attended, Urban said.

“They washed men and women,” Urban said.

Washing of feet was important in Christ’s day because people wore sandals and the roads were dusty and dirty, Urban said.

“Mary Magdalene washed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair,” Urban said.

The feet washing occurs during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the evening on Thursday, said Barbarito, who attends Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church near Lakewood Ranch.

Reddy declined to provide a copy of the letter sent to priests in the diocese.

Calls to several Manatee County priests for comment on the controversy were not returned Tuesday.

“They won’t talk to you about this,” Reddy said.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.