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Whose Feet Did Pope Francis Really Wash? The Call to Return to Gospel Simplicity
By Deacon Keith Fournier
April 7th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
"Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." (Luke 7:37-48)
CHESAPEAKE, VA - I have stayed away from a rather contentious dialogue in the blogosphere over the choice made by Pope Francis to wash the feet of two women on Holy Thursday at that juvenile prison in Rome. There are two streams in the tradition concerning this profoundly meaningful activity of washing feet; both of which are ancient and beautiful.
One directly connects the activity with the institution of the ministerial priesthood at the last Supper. This is how the optional Rite of Foot Washing became liturgically connected with the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday.
The other was practiced in monasteries and religious houses in the Church during her early developmental years. It is associated with the practice of hospitality and our prophetic call to imitate Jesus the Servant. Given the fact that travelers walked long distances, their feet were dirty and sometimes even wounded. Foot washing was a profound sign of the humility of the host and an act of Gospel hospitality.
Sadly, the tussle over these two beautiful and meaningful symbols has become fodder for a discussion which made its way into the secular press. The endless articles over what is essentially an in house debate did little to assist us in our primary call to proclaim the saving message of the Gospel in word and deed to an age which has lost its way.
Francis of Assisi was a word walking. He lived the Christian life and vocation in a manner that is intended - through example- to invite others to follow the same pattern. I suggest that his namesake, the 265th successor of Peter, also named Francis, is following in his footsteps. Are we hearing that message with the eyes of our heart?
When I read the 25th chapter of Matthews Gospel I am drawn to my knees by the words of Jesus, "I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison, and you visited me." (Matt. 25: 31-46)
I understand the question posed by his stunned disciples, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs." (Matthew 25.35-36) It was an extraordinary statement! However, as I have aged I have come to see there are so many faces of poverty. I am just beginning to learn to recognize the face of Jesus revealed in them all. Francis is becoming my teacher.
Have you ever considered the significance of the fact that the same Jesus who promised to be with us always also told us that the poor would be with us always? That is because they are connected. Indeed, in a sense, they are one and the same - in a way that is revealed with the eyes of living faith. "The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me" (Jesus, Matthew 26:11) "And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (Jesus, Matthew 28:20)
The face of Jesus is found in the face of the poor, for those with eyes to see. The word of Jesus is spoken through the poor, for those who cultivate the ears to hear Him. The cry of Jesus is heard in the cry of the poor, at least for those who stop to listen. That is the deeper meaning behind this sobering scene recounting the last judgment recorded by the Evangelist Matthew in the 25th Chapter of his Gospel:
"Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'
"Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'"
Those who love the poor - like Jesus loved the poor- are given as a gift and instruction manual for the rest of us. They are a sign of the kingdom, making it present in their wake. We have a Pope named Francis who taught us in prophetic action in that visit to the Jail on Holy Thursday. As he washed the feet of those prisoners, he washed the feet of Jesus with an alabaster flask of ointment and tears. So, I ask, whose feet did Pope Francis really wash? He washed the feet of Jesus.
Pope St Leo the Great once wrote of Jesus: "He took the nature of a servant without stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity. He emptied himself; though invisible he made himself visible, though Creator and Lord of all things he chose to be one of us mortal men. Yet this was the condescension of compassion, not the loss of omnipotence. So he, who in the nature of God had created man, became in the nature of a servant, man himself."
God became the least of these. Will we? Will we allow the truth revealed in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ to become our pattern for daily living? Will we cooperate with the grace of conversion and be emptied of ourselves for others? When we empty ourselves, He comes and takes up His residence within us.
Then, we can become His arms, embracing the world; His legs, still walking its dusty streets; and His Heart, still beating with the Divine Compassion manifested in Jesus Christ, the One who became the least of these in order to bring all of us into the full communion of Love. The Call we are witnessing is a call to return to Gospel Simplicity.
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