When he bent down on his knees in the youth detention jail in Rome on Holy Thursday, Pope Francis sent a message to Catholic Church leaders and to the world. It seems to say, change is here, we have to leave behind the pomposity, clerical child abuse and domination wherever it may be, and be humble servants of the poor and the wretched and give them dignity, justice and hope.
“To wash your feet, this is a symbol, a sign that I am at your service. But it also means that we have to help each other. It was normal to get mad at others, but let it be, let it be. If that person asks you a favor, do it. Let’s help each other. I do it with my heart because it is my duty as priest and as Bishop; I have to be at your service. It’s a duty that comes from my heart because I love doing this, because this is what the Lord taught me.”
He was of course imitating Jesus of Nazareth who washed the feet of His disciples as would a humble servant. Jesus was a charismatic leader with a passion for justice, equality and sought a spiritual and social revolution. How could the future leaders of the church be credible and teach, guide and expect others to follow moral principles and behavior, if they themselves did not teach by example? That is what Jesus was saying by his actions. Pope Francis seems to be repeating that message.
Blessed are the poor, Jesus said, theirs is the kingdom of God. This is what Pope Francis was saying also in a symbolic way. He sees a Church where humility has been replaced with arrogance and pomp, and privilege has replaced compassion and justice. He knows that abusive priests were allowed by some irresponsible Bishops to continue to abuse children with impunity. He knows that despite past apologies to victims by the previous Popes, church structures have not changed sufficiently to restore the trust and confidence of Catholics in the Church as a reliable, open, transparent, credible institution. It’s time to change.
Jesus challenged the religious authorities and infuriated them. Then they plotted His downfall and had Him convicted as a political rebel and given the death penalty. They accused Him of trying to be a King when in fact that was what He totally repudiated. Jesus gave us the example of that special challenging love that drives a person to care for the stranger, and to help the poorest and most exploited and abused of society.
We can clearly see the message of Pope Francis when he was on his knees before the prisoners. He established by his words and action the rights, dignity and the fact that they should have a place in the world. He seems to be signaling to all Catholics to be a servant, a helper and to realize that being a follower of Jesus of Nazareth has duties and obligations that go far beyond attending Mass and Church ceremonies. This is what Pope Francis said of his mission today.
“I would like it to go out to every house and every family, especially where the suffering is greatest, in hospitals, in prisons. Most of all, I would like it to enter every heart, for it is there that God wants to sow this Good News: Jesus is risen, there is hope for you, you are no longer in the power of sin, of evil! Love has triumphed, mercy has been victorious!”
Columban Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.