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About today, a normal and highly significant Thursday

[ by Charles Cameron — remembering that there are two calendars, two times, the secular and the sacred, and that there’s more poetry, more depth of heart and thus intellect too, in the sacred calendar — a truth made known also to popes and monarchs ]

Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, washes & kisses the feet of residents of a shelter for drug users, Maundy Thursday, 2008


It’s an extraordinary day, today, for myself as it happens, and more significantly for the world. Specifically, it is significant for poor and powerful alike, for it sets them in a proper relation to one another.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day on which Christ’s Last Supper, which became and remains the prototype of the Catholic Mass, is remembered. His Last Supper would be closely followed by his crucifixion the next day, Good Friday, and resurrection on Easter Sunday.

After that final supper, Christ made a gesture which initially disturbed his close followers — he washed their feet, then instructed them to do the same.

His gesture repeats itself to this day.


Pope Francis, who as an archbishop had followed this practice by washing and kissing the feet of young people in drug shelters (image above) and AIDS clinics, is breaking with Vatican tradition — the pope washing the feet of priests in some major basilica in Rome — this year, by going to a youth prison today for the ceremony:

The Mass of the Lord’s Supper that Pope Francis will celebrate on Holy Thursday in the chapel of the Casal del Marmo Penitential Institute for Minors will be, by his express desire, very simple. Concelebrating with the Holy Father will be Cardinal Agostino Vallini, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome, and Fr. Gaetano Greco, chaplain of the Institute.

Around 10 girls and 40 boys will take part in the Mass. The Pope will wash the feet of 12 of them, who will be chosen from different nationalities and diverse religious confessions. The youth will also say the readings and the prayers of the faithful. Given the intimate nature of the pastoral visit, journalists will be restricted to the area outside the building and no live coverage will be transmitted.

That’s a slightly formal Vatican announcement of the occasion: “diverse religious confessions” in this case almost certainly includes Muslims and atheists or agnostics. Father Greco, the prison chaplain, is quoted as saying:

Only eight of our residents are Italian: six boys and two girls … The others are all foreigners. And most of them are Muslim. Then there are some who have no religious belief at all. Therefore many of them don’t even know who the Pope is. For this reason too, it was far from easy to explain to them the importance of the Pope’s visit.

A young Neapolitan who has been here for a while came to my help. He gathered them all together, to try to make them understand above all what the Pope’s act, which is an act of love for them, actually meant. I was upset for a moment by the first looks, that were either blank or only faintly curious about my enthusiasm. Then our friend broke the silence with that most classic of Neapolitan expressions: “Maronna mia, o Papa accà!” [good heavens! The Pope here!] and he ran his hand through his hair, his face betraying emotions mingled with happiness. At that very instant all the others, seeing his amazement, realized that it must really be something very special and began to question me. Little by little, I saw their enthusiasm growing.

Father Greco said of his young charges that the Pope’s visit “will make them see that their lives are not bound by a mistake, that forgiveness exists and that they can begin to build their lives again.”


This symbolic gesture, this washing of the feet, does indeed have enormous imaginative power, if we will allow it, to touch the heart and transform our behavior.

I’ve quoted this before, I know: it’s the account given by the man I know who, more than any other, prayed, lived, worked, and saw his great dream and hope accomplished in his lifetime — the overturning of the apartheid regime in S. Africa. For myself, it’s the heart of what he taught me: here, in his own words, Fr Trevor Huddleston CR describes how his own role in that drama began:

On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.


Earlier today, Queen Elizabeth II will have celebrated “the Royal Maundy” in the chapel of my old College and that of my mentor, Trevor Huddleston, at Oxford, Christ Church — our college chapel is also the cathedral of that great city.

The current Dean Of Christ Church, the Very Reverend Christopher Lewis, gave the BBC this historical detail:

The last time it happened here was in 1644 when Charles I was thrown out of London and welcomed in Oxford.

Here’s the glorious building where the ceremony will have taken place:

The chapel of Christ Church, Oxford, and Cathedral of the Oxford Diocese


The Royal Maundy is celebrated by the monarch giving two purses to local pensioners — 83 men and 83 women this year since HM is 83 years old — a white purse containing sterling silver 1p, 2p, 3p and 4p pieces, and a red purse contained a £5 and a 50p coin commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation in 1953.

Maundy Thursday commemorates the day of the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles. The word ‘Maundy’ comes from the command or ‘mandatum’ by Christ at the Last Supper, to love one another.

The tradition of the Sovereign giving money to the poor dates from the thirteenth century. The Sovereign also used to give food and clothing, and even washed the recipients’ feet. The last monarch to do so was James II.

The recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, gives us a sense of the rich symbolism of the occasion:

It’s a curious survival, the Royal Maundy, but a touching one, looking back to the days when the monarch really was expected to be a bit like a priest for the nation – acting out the great symbols of faith on behalf of everyone. …

And that’s very much what the Royal Maundy is about. What we see today is only a shadow of what used to be done hundreds of years ago, when the monarch would actually do what Jesus did at the Last Supper and wash the feet of a number of poor people. Back in the Middle Ages, this meant that the King was just doing what priests and bishops often did, not only on Maundy Thursday but on many other occasions.

They didn’t all do it because they were lovely humble people – some were, and some definitely weren’t – but because they accepted one great truth that needed repeating over and over again, the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.

And that was – and is – the truth that power constantly needs to be reminded of what it’s for. Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves. The Bible is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the gospel of Jesus judges the powerful of this world.

Not everyone would agree — but I believe the current Queen and the current Pope would — as would his predecessor, Benedict XVI. It bears repeating:

Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.


Here is the text from St John’s gospel — the gospel that focuses its attention at the symbolic level — describing the original event [John 13.1-15]:

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.

Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?

Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.

Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet.

Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.

Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.

Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.

So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.


Here finally, for sheer beauty, is the great 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria‘s First Lamentation for Maundy Thursday, sung by the Tallis Scholars in the chapel of Merton College, Oxford — just around the corner from Christ Church:

Via New Liturgical Movement

12 Responses to “About today, a normal and highly significant Thursday”

  1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    Only eight of our residents are Italian: six boys and two girls … The others are all foreigners. And most of them are Muslim. Then there are some who have no religious belief at all. Therefore many of them don’t even know who the Pope is. For this reason too, it was far from easy to explain to them the importance of the Pope’s visit.

    That bothers me. Are these young people being used to prove the Pope’s humility? In which case, is it really humility? Elsewhere it says they were chosen. By whom? What part did they have in the choice?

    Perhaps they will be genuinely moved by the Pope’s actions. Only they will know.

    It is a good thing that press access is being limited, however. 

  2. joey Says:

    When viewed in those terms Christianity remains a revolutionary force.  And as personally challenging as ever.

    Cheryl, its seems he has a track record in feet kissing,  so I would imagine his humility is proved at this stage.
    He’s the Pope,  they don’t need to run PR campaigns for reelection,  or prove that there coffee is more free trade than the competitors.  In short he doesn’t have to prove anything.   

  3. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    He may or may not have to prove anything. I’m less concerned about the state of his soul than the state of the young people’s souls. (Using soul to indicate spiritual/mental issues)
    How voluntary is this for them? Do they particpate in the spiritual meaning? Have they been coerced, even subtly?
    If they are drug users and this is a rehab facility, they probably get some good points. Does that constitute coercion? 

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Cheryl:
    I don’t think we’ll get all the answers to your questions, but my sense is that if the idea was to “prove” the pope’s humility, the whole thing would have been made into more or a photo op.  And for this pope, it’s not as though he’s doing this for the first time, he did it while archbishop, and I’l be he did it — like Trevor — as a parish priest, too — it’s just his style.  
    But then, consider also the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comment on previous popes and potentates: “They didn’t all do it because they were lovely humble people – some were, and some definitely weren’t.”
    I expect there are those who will use all this Pope’s gestures of this kind as “humility PR” — but there will also be those who read the symbolism and find it inspirational and transformative.  I think those are the real beneficiaries here, and hope to be one of them myself.

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Here’s an interesting comment that may be relevant, from Reuters

    Jorge is a political man with a keen nose for politics,” says Rafael Velasco, a Jesuit priest and former colleague who is now rector of the Catholic University of Cordoba, in central Argentina. “It’s not an act, the humility. But it’s part of his great capacity to intuitively know and read people.”

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’ve just seen your more recent comment, Cheryl.  I doubt we’ll ever know in detail about the selection p;rocess, or whether there was coercion, subtle or otherwise.  More later perhaps — I have to run!

  7. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    Well, it’s all symbolism. It’s a performance.  Interpretations might vary.  I have thought of one, which I’m guessing has probably cropped up across the Internets(tm) by now…something about priests kissing the feet of young, troubled men….but did not want to go there.

    You are not going to find Obama doing any such thing.  Which is noteworthy.  I can’t imagine Sarah Palin doing this either, at least not so anyone can see it.


    There is a tradition behind it, and so a formality and formalism, which I think ought to be taken into consideration—though both negative and positive interpretations could spring from that consideration.  My own take on the formalism is ambivalent.  My instinct is to see it as a very positive expression; but following close behind that is the wish to see the Pope, walking alone, going to the poor in Rome and elsewhere around the world, without guards (although maybe with helpers—helper priests) and tending to the poor.   Let me see his faith in God is as great as his putative compassion for the poor, and not do it behind closed doors.  [This is not to say that I think he has no compassion for the poor, because though I have only read accounts, or performances recorded for the public, I think he does have compassion for the poor.]     

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Okay: according to the BBC:

    The 12 inmates included two girls, one Italian Catholic and one of Serbian Muslim origin, local prison ombudsman Angiolo Marroni said ahead of the ceremony.

    The Beeb then pointed to an article from the Catholic News Agency:

    Some of the young men volunteered to have their feet washed, Fr. Greco explained, while others were given an invitation to help them overcome their embarrassment or self-consciousness.
    “But all of them are very happy, and the visit will make them think, reconsider and understand that there are people in this world who are concerned for them,” he said.
    He added that many of the juveniles come from broken families and have sought an escape in drugs and crime.
    “That Pope Francis himself is concerned for them is very significant, because it exposes this problem that so many disadvantaged boys and girls are experiencing,” the priest said.
    The residents chosen to have their feet washed by the Pope range in age from 16 to 21 years old.

    And from the Washington Post:

    The inclusion of two women in the rite — which commemorates Jesus’ washing of the feet of the apostles on the night before his death — is also a first for a pope, but Francis had already done so as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
    As all of Jesus’ apostles were men, popes usually washed the feet of 12 male priests.

  9. zen Says:

    Cheryl wrote:
    Elsewhere it says they were chosen. By whom? What part did they have in the choice?

    My guess, based on my admittedly limited experience with youth offenders from my days teaching at-risk populations is: a) they were chosen by the warden’s staff on the basis of which prisoners would not try to shank the Pope, drop their pants in front of reporters or scream bizarre obscenities and b) the prisoners were eager to participate because it broke their usual dull routine and allowed them to be treated as human beings. Plus they probably were given some minor reward for good behavior afterwards to keep things running smoothly

  10. Charles Cameron Says:

    That sounds about right to me, Zen. 

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    I ran across an intriguing discussion of the legality of the Pope’s action in washing the feet of women — washing the feet of Muslims may have caused a bit of a stir too, but it was the women whose participation in the rite seemed to be in question.  
    Apparently, there’s a liturgical ruling, Paschalis Sollemnitatatis, IV, Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, 51, which says:

    The washing of the feet of chosen men which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came “not to be served, but to serve.” This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.

    Furthermore, there’s a Q&A on the specific subject of women’s feet in the Catholic Liturgical Library under Rubrics & Law > Ceremonies > Washing Feet on Holy Thursday which clarifies:

    Q. Can the priest wash women’s feet on Holy Thursday?
    According to the sacramentary, “The men [vir] who have been chosen are led by the ministers to chairs prepared in a suitable place. Then the priest (removing his chasuble if necessary) goes to each man. With the help of the ministers, he pours water over each one’s feet and dries them.”
    In 1988 the Congregation for Divine Worship reaffirmed that only men’s feet are supposed to be washed: “The washing of the feet of chosen men [vir] which, according to tradition, is performed on this day, represents the service and charity of Christ, who came ‘not to be served, but to serve’ (Matt. 20:28). This tradition should be maintained, and its proper significance explained.”–Paschales Solemnitatis, 51.
    In both cases the latin word vir is used which means that men is not referring to mankind but only to males. Therefore, only men may have their feet washed on Holy Thursday. The practice of having the congregation wash each other’s feet is also not allowed as the instruction refers only to the priest as the washer of feet.

    These, however, are regulations with which the Cardinal Archbishop who is now Pope Francis did not seem unduly troubled by in Argentina, and which his new position as bishop of Rome clearly gives him discretionary power over.  His authorities are set out in a major section of the Codex of Canon Law, Book II, Pt. ii, Sect. 1, Chap. 1, Art. 1: The Roman Pontiff, Canon 331, thus:

    The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

    Besides, he has the power of binding and loosing, no? Matthew 16:19:

    And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

  12. 21 Reasons Pope Francis Is The Coolest Pope In Recent Memory | Mothership.SG Says:

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