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As Easter approaches, Francis to wash mixed-gender feet

The pope has overturned a ban that kept male clergy from washing women's feet during Lent. The new regulation has upset conservatives and delighted women's rights activists.

New regulations allow

Francis

to continue his formerly rule-breaking ritual of washing female and non-Christian feet. Until Thursday,

the scandal-prone church

had formally only allowed male Catholics to take part in the service, in which a priest (or pope) washes and kisses the feet of 12 people. The gesture commemorates the humility of Jesus Christ, who washed his apostles' feet on Holy Thursday, the night before the Romans crucified him alongside two convicted thieves - one penitent, one reportedly not.

In a letter to Vatican officials dated December 20 but released Thursday, Francis wrote that he wanted to change the rules "to fully express the significance of Jesus' gesture, his giving of himself to the end for the salvation of the world and his unending charity."

Some parishes of the 1.2 billion-member church have long allowed the ritual washing of women's feet. Most, however, have stuck to the rules as written in Rome.

A decree on the pope's behalf by Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea on Thursday argued that Jesus had "given his life for the salvation of all of humanity" - and the people whose feet get washed should therefore comprise men, women, old and young, sick and healthy.

Pope's big step

Since his election in 2013,

the first Latino 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, in his native Argentina. He has held these services in a home for the elderly and has even washed the feet of Muslims, which outraged many Catholics. The pope's plan to promote his mixed-gender pedal-plashing was both praised and pooh-poohed on Thursday.

"This is great news, a wonderful step forward," said Erin Hanna, co-director of the US-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 the news agency Reuters on Thursday.

In a statement, however, Joseph Shaw, the leader of the Latin Mass Society, said that his fellow liturgical conservatives "may well feel the rug has been pulled from under them by this decree."

Despite the move, the church will not likely move too fast for its most conservative members. The pope has said, for example, that he wants to put women in more positions of power in the Vatican and the Church worldwide, but he has ruled out allowing women priests, saying "the door is closed" on the issue.

The pope has received praise for

speaking up for refugees

who face racial, cultural and political hurdles in Europe. However, during

his recent visit to Africa

, the pope was also the target of much criticism for not discussing the role of condoms in fighting HIV.

mkg/kms (Reuters, AP)

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