Foot Washing & Celibacy

(Homily for Holy Thursday)

Bottom line: By washing the Apostles' feet, Jesus underscores an essential dimension of the prieshood - humble service, at the disposition to all. We see that service and availability in the charism of celibacy.

It is beautiful to celebrate with you this Mass of the Last Supper. I always feel a special intimacy because those who come to this Mass tend to be the core families of the parish. In addition to that intimacy, the Mass has particular significance this year because we are in the final months of the Year for Priests. Many of you have been praying for me - and for other priests. The Christian priesthood - as I am sure you are aware - originated at the Last Supper: At that meal, Jesus took the bread and said, "This is my body." And with the wine, "This is my blood." Then, speaking directly to the Apostles, he said, "Do this in memory of me." The priesthood exists to fulfill that command: to offer the Body and Blood of Christ as an everlasting memorial.

Jesus did something else at the Last Supper that relates deeply to the priesthood. We heard about it in this evening's Gospel: Before the meal, that is, as they gathered around the table, he took a towel and basin - and started washing their feet. That gesture surprised them, but Jesus did it for a reason - a reason that relates to the priesthood. Jesus washed feet because he wants his priest to be a humble servant - available to all.

Now, that's not an easy thing. I can't say I relish the idea of being a servant - available to everyone. Nor can I tell you tonight all that it means (and perhaps does not mean), but I would like to address one aspect of that service: priestly celibacy. Since very early times, the priesthood has been associated with the charism of celibacy. Priests do not get marry and have children, but the reason is not because we don't value marriage and family. Quite the contrary - for us as Christians, marriage and family have a paramount value, greater than any other human institution. A priest forgoes marriage not to avoid hassles, but he so can serve all people - without distinction. A married man has to put his wife - and children - first, before anyone else (except God, of course).

For a priest it is different: The Church is his bride - and all Christians are his sons and daughter.* Each one has equal claim on him. He has to be available to wash the feet of all. That is the meaning of priestly celibacy. Celibacy is a beautiful charism - and we should treasure that gift, especially as a part of priestly service.

Unfortunately, celibacy often comes up in a negative context today. It has almost become a reflex response, when people hear about some problem in the church, to say, "Oh, this wouldn't happen if priests could get married." For example: "There wouldn't be a priest shortage - or we wouldn't have the clergy abuse crisis - if only priests could get married."

Maybe yes, maybe no.** From my 38 years as priest, I am very aware that - even though celibacy is not easy - that married people often make equal or greater sacrifices. And almost no human being - married, single, divorced, widowed - no one has an easy time living Jesus' requirement of chastity: that is, to use the gift of sexuality only in the context of marriage: the exclusive and lifelong union of a man and woman. This teaching is crystal clear. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand it. C.S. Lewis stated the teaching starkly: either complete abstinence or unmitigated monogamy.*** That is, wait till marriage and then be totally faithful to your spouse. The teaching is clear, but hardly easy.

In living chastity - especially to never look at another person as an object - we all fall short. And we all need daily forgiveness and grace to get back on the right road. Sadly, we live in a culture that tells people to just give up the fight, that chastity is an impossible ideal - and celibacy is crazy. For that very reason we desperately need the celibate witness. In our approach to sexuality, we have become like lemmings rushing to the edge of a cliff.

But, you know, in spite of the negativity and pessimism today, young people continue to hear the call to priesthood. For the past fourteen years I have had the privilege of serving on the Seminarian Review Committee. We interview every candidate for the priesthood in the archdiocese. Often I am amazed at the way the Holy Spirit calls young men.

A recent example impressed me deeply - and has a particular relevance to tonight's Mass: This young man was seated in the congregation during the Holy Thursday Mass. When the priest began to wash the feet of the twelve men, the young man felt an urge to come forward, to push the priest out the way and himself start washing feet. He knew that at that moment God was calling him to the priesthood. The desire continued as went through college - and now he is ready to enter the formation program.

In few moments I will perform that gesture of washing feet. I would love it if some young man felt the urge to shove me aside. Don't do it - but talk to me afterward. As a priest you will have a unique opportunity to serve - to wash the feet of others.

Some parishes have the entire congregation participate in the foot-washing ceremony. We will not be doing that, but I would like to encourage you to literally wash someone's feet during the Triduum. Let me give you an example: Once a college girl was home for spring vacation, visiting her mom and grandparents. It was getting toward evening and she noticed that her grandmother looked tired, perhaps with some pain and stress. She surprised everyone by asking, "Grandma, can I wash your feet?" Then she brought a bowl of warm water and towel. As she began to wash her grandmother's feet, the cares and anxiety seemed to disappear from the elderly woman's face. When the girl dried her feet with the towel, everyone could see the grandmother was totally relaxed.

To wash someone's feet expresses great care. Jesus did that for his disciples - and in imitation of Jesus I will wash the feet of twelve men this evening. For me this has a special significance in this "Year for Priests."

My main point this evening: By washing the Apostles' feet, Jesus underscores an essential dimension of the prieshood - humble service, at the disposition to all. We see that service and availability in the charism of celibacy - that from the beginning has been associated with the priesthood. Yes, the priest is a married man with children. My bride is the Church - and you are my sons and daughters.

With that I would like to now call forward the men who will represent the Twelve Apostles.


*The priest's prayer for the Year for Priests has these beautiful words:

May the Blessed Mother of your dearly beloved Son,wrap her mantle around me and protect me from all evil. May she guide me to do whatever He tells me. May she teach me to have the heart of St. Joseph, her spouse, to protect and care for my bride. And may her pierced heart inspire me to embrace as my own your children who suffer at the foot of the cross.

**I do agree with those who lament the absence of mature feminine influence in priests' lives. Prior to the late sixties almost every parish had a live-in housekeeper (who canonically had to be "super-adulta" - a mature, older woman. And most parishes had a corp of no-nonsense nuns. These mature feminine influences provided some of the "civilizing" influence that wives provide to young men.

***From The Screwtape Letters:

The Enemy's demand on humans takes the form of a dilemma; either complete abstinence or unmitigated monogamy. Ever since our Father's first great victory, we have rendered the former very difficult to them. The latter, for the last few centuries, we have been closing as a way of escape. We have done this through the poets and novelists by persuading he humans that a curious, and usually short-lived, experience which they call "being in love" is the only respectable ground for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to, render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding. This idea is our parody of an idea that came from the Enemy.

Spanish Version

From Archives:

2012 Homily: Blood Shed For Us
2011: The Love of Loves
2010: Foot Washing & Celibacy
2009: Join the Nearest Household
2008: Grandma, Can I Wash Your Feet?
2007: The Passover Lamb Must Be Eaten
2006: A New Friend at the Banquet
2005: Our True Companion
2004: A Girl's Heroic Holy Hour
2003: Do This!
2002: Humiliation of Priesthood
2001: Super-Abundance of Mercy
2000: Washing of Feet & Eucharist
1999: Family Struggles & Strengths

Other Homilies

Homilias en Castellano Para Jueves Santo:

2010: Lavatorio de Pies y el Celibato
2009: Que Se Junte Con Los Vecinos
2008: Abuelita, Puedo Lavarte Los Pies?
2007: Hay Que Comer el Cordero Pascual
2006: Un Nuevo Amigo al Banquete
2005: Nuestro Verdadero Compañero
2004: La Hora Santa Heroica de una Niña
2003: ¡Hagan Esto!
2002: Super-Abundancia de Misericordia

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