Pope Francis made headlines last Holy Week for the controversial manner in which he celebrated Maundy Thursday. This ancient ritual of footwashing- one of the most beautiful rites of humility, love and service in the Christian church-commemorates Jesus' great commandment to his disciples: Love one another as I have loved you. Each church re-creates this event differently. Some have the priest wash the feet of parishioners; in others, each person takes a turn, being both servant and served.
In the Vatican tradition, the pope washes the feet of twelve people.Each one has always been a man. Each one has always been a priest or cardinal. Pope Francis changed all of that.
In an extraordinary heartfelt gesture, Pope Francis celebrated Maundy Thursday not in the opulent splendor of the Basilica, but in a juvenile detention center which included young men and women, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics alike.
He knelt on the cold stone floor, washed their feet and then kissed them. Men and women, both. Catholics and non-Catholic, both.
He has chosen his pontifical name well. Saint Francis of Assisi was reputed to have said, " Practice the gospel at all times and when absolutely necessary, use words". In this one gesture, Pope Francis set a precedent for embodying the values of universal love, service, compassion and tenderness that speaks louder than any sermon. When asked why he did it, he offered, " It helps me be humble, as a bishop should be" then added, " It comes from my heart. Things from the heart don't have an explanation".
Grumbles have arisen within the Vatican hierarchy around this momentous gesture of extravagant love. Some cardinals have openly criticized the pope, saying his actions were "improper" because they included women. I'd like to point out that the Christian tradition of washing and kissing of feet actually began with a woman- and a very improper woman, at that. In the Gospel of Luke, it is written in Chapter 7 that:
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them
The Pharisee, puffed up with indignation, objects . How could he let such a woman-presumably a prositute- touch him? He must not be a real prophet. Jesus uses this as an opportunity to offer a parable about love and forgiveness- ending with the famous lines,
“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little"
Jesus reduced all codes of ethics and Jewish law to two simple precepts: love God, love each other. The very word Credo, from which we get the word Creed, is most fully translated not " I believe" or " I think", but "I give my heart to". What what so radical in his ministry is that Jesus gave his heart without discrimination, without consideration for propriety- to the poor, the marginalized, the unwanted, the stranger, the Samaritans, the woman at the well, to the penitent sinner. It is clear from his actions that Pope Francis was giving his heart - and his attention- to the least amongst us.
Pope Francis offered each of the inmates an Easter egg at the conclusion of mass as a symbol of hope.
In his observance of the true spirit of Maundy Thursday- the root of which is the mandate to love one another- he offered the world a symbol of hope as well.