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EDITORIAL: What service means

April 14, 2015 · 


What service means
Philippine Daily Inquirer 12:09 AM | Monday, April 6th, 20


photo grabbed through google images

FOR THE second time in three years, Pope Francis celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday-one of the most important rites in the Catholic Church’s most important season-inside a prison. And for the third year in a row, he used the traditional reenactment known as the Washing of the Feet to spread his papacy’s primary message of mercy and compassion.

In 2013, newly elected as Bishop of Rome, he became the first pope in recorded history to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass outside the major churches of the diocese. At the Youth Detention Center in Rome’s Casal del Marmo district, he also washed the feet of 12 young detainees, not all of whom were Catholic.

Last year, he celebrated the Holy Thursday Mass-traditionally marking the anniversary of both the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood-at the Don Gnocchi Foundation’s center for the elderly and the disabled, also in Casal del Marmo. He washed the feet of 12 persons: “nine Italians, one Muslim from Libya, a young man from Cape Verde and an Ethiopian woman,” in Radio Vatican’s summing up.

Last week, he celebrated the Mass which commemorates the so-called Last Supper at the Rebibbia New Complex District Prison in Rome (the same prison where Pope John Paul II met with his failed assassin, to forgive him). In the simple rite that reenacts Jesus Christ’s own washing of his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 male and female inmates-and those of a toddler.

Radio Vatican noted: “During the Rite of the Washing of the Feet, several of the inmates cried as the Pope washed their feet. One woman detainee from Africa was holding her young child, and the Pope washed his feet, too.”

Pope Francis is continuing the practice he started in Buenos Aires, when he was still Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of conducting the Washing of the Feet in non-traditional venues, such as prisons and drug rehabilitation centers. But of course the rite itself goes back 2,000 years, to a time when most people traveled on unpaved roads, and the dirtiest part of a person’s body was often the feet, covered in dirt or caked in mud. It was the work of a servant or a slave to wash the feet of the master or his guests.

In the Gospels, we hear the vigorous protests of the original apostles, as represented by their imposing but impulsive leader, Peter, who loudly objected when Jesus started to wash his disciples’ feet. “Jesus is so loving, that he became a slave to serve us, to heal us, to cleanse us,” Pope Francis said in his improvised homily at the Rebibbia prison.

Today, some of the vigorous protests to the Pope’s interpretation and practice of the age-old rite come from within the Catholic Church, from those who believe that only adult males can take part in the Washing of the Feet. Their belief is based on the conviction that the rite is a reenactment of the institution of the priesthood; and since only men can be priests, only adult males can have their feet washed by the priest during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

They have a narrow basis for their belief: A rule set in place in 1955 by Pope Pius XII, allowing only 12 “viri selecti” (chosen or select men) to take part in the rite of the Washing of the Feet. But in Catholic teaching, all members of the faithful are called to be priests; why shouldn’t Pope Francis’ example constitute the new, more inclusive rule?

But perhaps the proper interpretation of the rite of washing is to see it not as part of the formal discharge of the first priests, but as part of the Good News itself, the reason why priests are needed in the first place. The Gospel of salvation at the heart of the Christian faith, which reaches its fulfilment in the triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is for all men and women “of good will” (to quote another radical pope). In that sense, Pope Francis is only following Jesus’ example, and reminding us that God’s grace falls wherever God wills it. If a toddler unexpectedly shows up at a rite of service, well then serve him, too.


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