Friday, April 18, 2014

The Pope's Holy Thursday

As has become contemporary papal practice, Pope Francis celebrated both of the prescribed Holy Thursday liturgies yesterday. In the morning he celebrated the Mass of the Chrism in the splendid setting of Saint Peter's Basilica, attended by some 10,000 people, among them a host of concelebrating cardinals, bishops, and priests. Then, in the evening, he began the Easter Triduum with the traditional Mass of the Lord's Supper, celebrated in the somewhat untraditional setting of a center for elderly and disable people somewhat outside the City's historic center.

Of course, the site of the traditional stational church for the Mass of the Lord's Supper, the Lateran Basilica, was originally itself at some distance from the city's center. In the 4th century, Rome's center was still dominated by pagan temples and civic structures. Emperor Constantine gave the upstart Christians a proper cathedral, but it was located at the edge of the city. So, perhaps, the Pope's choice of venue for the Mass of the Lord's Supper at the margin of society was not so untraditional after all!
The purpose of the Chrism Mass is the blessing of the oil of the sick and the oil of catechumens and the consecration of the sacred chrism for use in the coming year in the various sacraments of the Church. But, the reformed Chrism Mass (itself a reform of something revived relatively recently in 1955) has since acquired a specific focus on the priesthood. It has become the prime ocasion for celebrating the priesthood, the institution of which is, of course, one of the themes of Holy Thursday. Fittingly, therefore, the Holy Father's homily at yesterday's Chrism Mass  was addressed to his "Dear Brother Priests" and focused entirely on the meaning of the priesthood. Perhaps appropriately for a Pope whose defining document thus far has been about "the Joy of the Gospel," Pope Francis spoke eloquently about "the joy of being a priest .. not only for the priest himself but for the entire faithful people of God."
In good Jesuit fashion, he enumerated "three significant features of our priestly joy." It is, first, "a joy which anoints us" - something that "has penetrated deep within our hearts," shaping us and strengthening us. It is "an imperishable joy." In one of his especially felicitous images, one with which we priests should find ready resonance, the Pope says: It can lie dormant, or be clogged by sin or by life's troubles, yet deep down it remains intact, like the embers of a burnt log beneath the ashes, and it can always be renewed." Thirdly, it is "a missionary joy," which "springs up when the shepherd is in the midst of his flock." Priests in properly pastoral ministry settings will especially resonate with that!
He then followed that with another trilogy - somewhat analogous to the three evangelical counsels - identifying priestly joy with poverty, fidelity, and obedience. The application to poverty is particularly powerful. Being "poor," the priest "has to seek his joy from the Lord and form God's faithful people. " Priestly identity, the Pope stresses, presupposes "an active and unwavering sense of belonging to God's faithful people." So, instead of "soul-searching and introspection," the Pope recommends getting out of oneself: "exit from yourself, exit to seek God in adoration, go out and give your people what was entrusted to you."
The homily concludes with the Pope's personal prayer  for priests - for new priests, for veteran priests, and for elderly priests.
Beautiful as was his homily, equally beautiful was the evening Mass, which in so many ways seemed to serve as an example of priestly joy experienced in putting into practice the principles articulated in his homily. Of course, the media's fixation with whose feet he was washing - specifically their sex - can only get in the way of appreciating all that.
There is, in fact, nothing novel about both sexes getting their feet washed. For centuries (before 1955, when Pius XII inserted the foot-washing as an optional rite in  the Mass of the Lord's Supper) bishops, abbots, and kings regularly performed the mandatum ritual apart from Mass, washing the feet of fellow clerics or poor men, while abbesses and queens similarly washed the feet of women. What presumably didn't happen in the past was men washing women's feet (or women washing men's feet). Such behavior would likely have been seen as scandalously inappropriate in most eras - and may still be so seen today in many parts of the world. In contemporary Western societies, however, the cultural presuppositions underlying male-female interactions have dramatically changed - with the result that in many places the idea of a priest washing the feet of women along with men no longer seems inappropriate. In fact, given contemporary conceptions of inclusion and equality, including members of both sexes seems increasingly appropriate to many. Since the foot-washing is now a very public part of a very public Mass and no longer the semi-public or even private rite it once was, this has become a major preoccupation for many on both sides of the issue.
Clearly, the mandatum may lend itself to multiple meanings and multiple symbolisms. One may see the mandatum ritual  as a kind of pantomime re-enactment of the Last Supper, in which case one may well wish to restrict the foot-washing - not just to men but to clerics. In terms of priestly spirituality and the bishop's special relationship with his priests, there may be merit to a bishop performing the ritual on his priests, deacons, and seminarians, for example. But the mandatum is not exclusively about any of that. It is not primarily about priesthood, per se. Rather, it is about imitating Jesus in his messianic self-abasement and thus offering the world an alternative model of relationships - something which all Christians are called upon to exemplify. That is something those more marginal Christian sects which have historically incorporated foot-washing into their regular worship practices have recognized. More to the point, it is something Pope Francis clearly recognizes and wishes to model for today's Church. Along with the morning's Chrism Mass and the Pope's superb homily about priesthood, the very moving, intimate celebration of the Mass of the Lord's Supper at a local residence for elderly and disabled people seemed to me to hit just the right note for Holy Thursday this year.

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