Holy Thursday and Lay Holiness

Below is my homily from Holy Thursday 2016. Go love like Christ loved. Fr. Naples


Holy Thursday
The Mass for Holy Thursday has two options that I have never seen implemented. First, the celebrant or community can opt not to do the washing of the feet. Secondly there may be an offertory “for the poor” with the presentation of the gifts – that is, there could be a collection, but it is not to be a parish collection. It must go to the poor. I am going to take the road less traveled for both of these tonight. I will specifically announce that the offertory will go to the family whose father is about to be baptized at our Easter Vigil. Their oldest son is in St. Paul’s School. Specifically, they need a washing machine and dryer, and if we at this Holy Thursday Mass want to pitch in a little, it will be a few less weeks that they need to wait for one.
As for the practice, and the non-necessity of the washing of the feet, recent events have made me contemplate this.
Let me put the ritual into perspective. First, it is obvious that it is a sacramental and not a sacrament. Second, it should be employed to the extent that it helps elucidate the central themes of this Mass. The missal states, for example that two themes should be paramount, “the institution of the Holy Eucharist and of the priestly Order, and the commandment of the Lord concerning fraternal charity.” However, the ritual could always be misunderstood. One small way in which it might be misunderstood is to think that it should be an affirmation of holiness in the parish priest who may perform it. It may be thought, because the priest is meant to be a holy man, therefore he washes the feet of his parishioners. The display therefore might be seen as the holiness of the priest. But this goes against what Jesus said about his actions at the Last Supper. He told the twelve apostles the opposite of this. He said, “because, in comparison to me you are NOT holy, you must therefore wash each other’s feet.” The ritual therefore does not affirm holiness in the priest. It shows the unholiness in fallen humanity, and likewise the holiness of the Lord who forgives all our sins.
This explanation is easy enough to put forward. But let me take the time that would have been used now for this ritual to go through the history that I have pondered recently in connection to this second paramount theme of this Mass.
In the early 20th century a certain form of clericalism held sway in the consciousness of most Catholics. Holiness was seen as the goal for the “expert” Christians, that is to say the priests and the nuns, but not for the laity. They were expected just to tow the line and keep themselves out of trouble. That is, they were just to avoid sin and do what they were told. It was not suggested that by their own exercise of Christian virtues they might accomplish great things in God’s eyes for his kingdom. It was not common for them to hear that they should become saints. There was a certain comfort in this situation for all involved, and so only the best of the teaching officials, and a couple uncommon laymen, seemed to be challenging the sentiment. Happily for the church those good bishops and priests who wanted to correct the popular notion of holiness had their day in the Second Vatican Council. There, as the bishops of the world crafted the document concerning the Catholic Church, a document known as Light of the Nations, a teaching was set forward which challenged this notion – that holiness was really for priests and nuns – by reinforcing the scripture and tradition about the ways of Almighty God. Holiness was defined not as a career path in the Church, nor as the exclusive expectation for priests and nuns, but rather as the practice of Gospel-formed charity. Further, the greatest example of charity was not to be found in any great accomplishments, but above all in surrendering one’s life for the Lord. Martyrdom was the greatest example of love that any Christian could show, and this of course is the grace of God, not a career choice in the Church. Holiness in this modern era of the Church, then, was to be found in a comparison of the individual Christian’s life with that supreme act of self giving for the love of God. Holiness is the death of Christ reflected in the virtues in the believer’s soul. If this new sentiment had been quickly adopted by all the members of the Catholic Church things would have changed for us much more quickly and in a much better way than they did. However, we know the history of how Catholics responded to Vatican II: with all sorts of infighting and even more kinds of novel ideas to try to reinvent the Church. Change for the sake of change would lead to holiness. Or, in many a priest’s mind, external growth of more programs and structures was still the measure of the Church. The prospect of liturgical roles for the laity in the Mass kept the greater vision of holiness on the back burner, because we were still focused on the one hour Mass. Not nearly enough priests made the true vision of holiness a high priority in the midst of all of the changes in the liturgical externals. The internal dispositions remained all too similar for several decades.
This is the history I have contemplated. And thank God it is history. Things have indeed changed so much. The Church in parts of the United States is exploding with immigrant populations, and a few Dioceses cannot build churches fast enough. In other parts – like here – we have more space in the pews than we know what to do with. In all of this, Priests could still try to maintain their shrinking churches as places of comfort where professional prestige is still honored and lauded. But the laity who are left in the shrinking churches – and the laity experiencing the growing pains of the growing churches – for any lay man or woman who really wants to attend Mass, less and less do they have the comfortable option once suggested to them, of “merely avoiding sin and towing the line.” We are almost at the end of the line.
Now the gift of white martyrdom is being offered to many believers in America, just as red martyrdom is being accepted by believers who are being slain by the Islamic State terrorists. The only option left may be the first one: a heartfelt embrace of the radical demands of the Gospel. One of the external changes after Vatican II was communion in the hand, as a throwback to an ancient practice of intimacy with the Lord. Along with it we have brought back the ancient practice of responsibility on the laity for evangelization; the priest gives the divine mysteries to the laity, but the messy prospect of encountering sinners and bringing them to God is not done by the priest. Christians must discover anew, despite their own discomfort, how to be the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”
Maybe I should be washing people’s feet right now, because I am not yet holy like Christ is holy. But maybe others here can say the same thing.

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