The Washing of Feet

The January 2006 Pastoral Review has a very interesting article by the English Bishop Crispian Hollis that takes the form of a reflection on a recent Diocesan Pastoral Plan for his Diocese of Portsmouth. Here is an excerpt:

I was ordained in 1965, which means that I have just celebrated 40 years as a priest. In the light of that, when I have spoken with the priests and deacons, I have reflected on the huge changes that have taken place in the Church and in my life over those years. These have been changes that have often seemed threatening and even de-stabilising. They are changes that have quite often brought us – me – to the empty tomb, asking the questions ‘where have they put the Lord?’ The reply, sooner or later, has always come, ‘he is risen, he is not here, he has gone before you into Galilee and bids you join him there’ and so the journey of faith continues.

I was ordained in the old rite by an aged Scottish Cardinal who was, as it were, swathed in purple (or at least scarlet) and fine linen. He vested at the altar, he wore buskins and gloves, there was no homily and the ceremony was conducted entirely in Latin. In all sort of ways, it was a rite of initiation into a very exclusive caste, which was all-powerful and which controlled the destiny of the gatherings of laity who constituted our parishes.

My first Eucharistic celebrations were in the Tridentine rite and, if not in public, were celebrated at a side altar, often at the same time as the community Mass was being celebrated in the main chapel of the seminary where I trained. Everything was in Latin and had many of the hallmarks of being my Mass and almost a private devotion. The priest in those days represented what Ronnie Knox wrote of in one of his Retreats for Priests, an instrument, and one who, in celebrating, should not allow his personality to intrude. There is still a proper place for that as my recent retreat experience at Mount St Bernard’s has led me to appreciate.

This was the tradition in which I had grown up. This was the tradition in which I first heard the invitation from the Lord ‘to come and see’ where he lived so that I could begin to ‘spend time with Him and see where he lived.’ Mine was a vocation to priesthood in a very different church from that of today. It was a calling to be a key player – even the humblest curate was that – in a church which was dominated by the clergy.

I often use the washing of the disciple’s feet, as recounted in John’s Gospel, as the model that priests should aspire to now. I don’t think that it would have featured very strongly in the Church, as we knew at the end of the Second Vatican Council. In saying these things, I do need to make it clear that in no way am I disparaging the excellent and dedicated priests of those days. They were outstanding in their commitment and very zealous in building up the kingdom of the Lord. They were men of disciplined prayer and there was, perhaps, a greater sense of solidarity and brotherhood between them than there is today. In fact, we would do well to look at their example and shape our lives, lived in very different circumstances today, on the values that they held so dear.

Let me come back to the washing of the feet, because, more and more, I see this to be what I must be doing and the model on which I have to base my life, as a priest and as the leader of the worshipping community. ‘When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again, he went back to the table. “Do you understand,” he said, “what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly, so I am. If I then have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you. In all truth I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, no messenger is greater than the one who sent him.”’ (Jn. 13.12-16) …

After a year in Amesbury [as a newly ordained priest], I was posted to the Catholic Chaplaincy in Oxford to work with that extraordinary man – and saint – Michael Hollings. This was the setting when I really learned the meaning of the washing the feet model of priesthood – and I actually had to do it for real for one of our residents. We operated an open door Chaplaincy, there was no space that you could securely call your own. When you went away, you had to make sure that your room was securely locked or, as like as not, Michael would have billeted a visitor in need in it during your absence. He was a man totally dedicated to people, to their needs and, in particular, to their spiritual needs. He was a man of fiercely dedicated prayer. It’s quite difficult to lie around in bed when you know that the boss has been in the chapel from 5.30 am until the 7.15 am Mass. Prayer and the priesthood had up till that point been something of a formality in my life. I was faithful to it but it lacked something of the personal engagement and love of the Lord that was so evident in the example that Michael put before me, though he never imposed it.

It was with Michael that I began to see that liturgy and Eucharist and their celebration was for the people and not something that needed to be imposed on them. Participation was at the heart of it and in those days, before the introduction of the vernacular, Michael and to a lesser extent myself were always getting into trouble for jumping the gun.

There was a very strong sense of community in the Chaplaincy in those days, centred, of course, in the Eucharist, but sustained also by total pastoral availability on the part of the chaplains and endless meals and hospitality to persuade the outer person to submit the inner person to the experience of the love of God:

St John Chrysostom might say: ‘Sacrament of our neighbour cannot be separated from the sacrament of the altar. Socialist atheism and oppressive communism came about because Christians were unable to share; because they retained the sacrament of the altar and forgot that of the neighbour. The daily bread that we seek in the Eucharist has to be transformed by us in our mission into the bread of the Kingdom, the bread of fraternal benevolence and beauty.’

(What “St John Chrysostom might say” is taken from Olivier Clément’s Three Prayers; Clément’s chapter on the Lord’s Prayer was blogged about here [scroll down to “The Lord’s Prayer 3”].)

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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