We were excited for Father. Besides being a warm, loving, and happy guy, he was probably one of the most gifted homilists or preachers that many of us have ever heard. Whenever he was celebrating Mass you were eager to hear his preaching knowing that somehow, something he would say would truly touch your heart. So as a seminarian, just in my second year of studies for the priesthood, I couldn’t even imagine what his Homily at his anniversary Mass was going to be.
The chapel was more crowded that day than any other time during my 4 years in seminary. Seminarians were directed to give up their seats to be hospitable to our visiting guests and there were so many people that the overflow went out the doors of the Chapel.
All of the preparations for this special day came together perfectly: The music was incredible - with trumpets blaring and the pipe organ thundering. The chapel was decorated beautifully. The lectors had proclaimed their readings perfectly. The deacon, with his vestments dressing him impeccably, received the blessing- walked in Procession with the Book of the Gospels and proclaimed that Sunday’s Gospel passage without any gaffes.
Here came the moment. This priest celebrating his anniversary - got up, and slowly walked to the pulpit. I got my pen out ready to jot some words of wisdom down. What insight, what type of reflection would he have after 50 years of being a priest? I mean 50 years - it doesn’t seem possible! What an accomplishment - how awesome -how tremendous... what would he say?
I can still picture him at the pulpit as he closed his eyes closed and said:
I give thanks to God who for reasons that only He knows called me to be His priest and I beg His forgiveness for all the times I haven’t lived up to that call.
That was it. That one sentence, given with his voice cracking, was his whole homily - there’s really not much more you can say after that. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that most of us had our jaws wide open, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought "Oh God, if he’s praying that, what hope do I have?"
That anniversary Mass came to mind as we enter into Holy Week. With the celebration of the Chrism Mass and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, we not only celebrate the institution of the Sacrament of the Eucharist – but the institution of the Priesthood. The Gospel tells us that Priesthood is all about serving.
The priest is sent to serve people who aren’t theirs – they’re his and they’ve been entrusted to the priest for a time. How do they serve them? They give them Jesus - his word, his body and blood. And how are they able to do that? Only in following Jesus’ example - the priest lays down his life.
And the priests do that far from perfectly. From these first twelve in the Upper Room for the Last Supper to those of us who stand at the altar today- we all learn, pretty quickly that following Jesus, answering His call to priesthood doesn’t remove our humanity. In fact, it probably stands out even more. Our sins, our failures, our quirks are all before the people we’ve been sent to serve.
And the priest knows that in his heart of hearts. He knows how imperfect he is at this. And at some moments, he challenges himself with questions like:
“How can I be giving absolution, giving God’s forgiveness when I need it myself?”
“How can I be speaking and offering God’s Love when I fail in sharing that so often?”
“How can I be giving and acting in the person of Christ when so often I’m pitiful in reflecting His presence in my own life?”
The beauty of the Holy Thursday Liturgy is that from it we receive the answer to those questions. Jesus knows all of this - he knows the men who are in that upper room with him and the ones he has called thousands of years later to the same task. And he shows us, how do you move beyond those doubts, those failures, those inadequacies that plague you? You wash feet.
You move out of yourself - you stop focusing on yourself - you stoop down - you humbly serve the people you’ve been sent to - you wash their feet.
For all of us – priests and lay people there’s much for us to think about over the next few days. The whole meaning of our faith comes together as we gather to celebrate these three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. And before the fullness of that will unfold in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection - we are entrusted with the difficult task of not just sharing that story but living it in our world today. That’s not done with catchy marketing, slick presentations, or media events. It’s done simply as we wash feet.