I was not a young man when I was ordained. I had served as a naval officer on nuclear submarines, worked in the private sector, started companies, sold companies, and all the while been active as a lay volunteer in many aspects of ministerial service to young, old, sick, dying, healthy and all the things that make up parish life.
In a story for another time, I left all that aside for just a while (so I thought) to become a lay missioner. I served for three years in the slums of Nairobi in aspects of ministerial service to young, old, sick, dying, healthy and all the things that make up parish life – in the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa and with Kenyans and with refugees from the interhamwe of Rwanda.
Life for me was changed.
I returned home to the United States, joined the Franciscan friar, and took up the life of poverty, chastity and obedience as a way of following Christ in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi. Along the way – burdened or aided by my experience of life and ministry (you can decide) – I entered seminary. A lifetime of experience in parishes, sitting in pews, and volunteering – of working with priest, staff, peers, clients and others – comes along with you. You don’t leave it at the door. I found myself assessing other seminarians from the frame of that experience: “would I want this man to be my pastor?”
I have to say that for the majority of men I met along the way, the answer was “yes….eventually.” We all grow into our roles and our vocations. We are all ordained with rough edges, human weakness, and a host of human foibles. The question is will we let ourselves be formed into priests by the fullness of the presence of God in our ministry.
Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) from Vatican II (para. 7) says the God is truly present in the people gathered, in the Word proclaimed, in the person of his minister, and most especially so in the Eucharist. The question for those who would celebrate the Sacred Liturgy – so it seems to me – is will we let the presence of God in all its forms shape us to be His servants. Or will we insist on shaping it to our sense of how things are in the world.
At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, from the Gospel of John (13:1-15), God is truly present in the Word proclaimed:
So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God, he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist…
“Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
This is the reading for Holy Thursday, a day that begins the three holiest days of the Church liturgical year and also remembers the foundation of the Eucharist and the ordained ministry of priest. “I have given you a model to follow…”
Perhaps we are burdened by our own experiences which come to the fore when we hear those words and begin to try to interpret the meaning and the paradigm of the model. There were some men in seminary – young and old – whose life experience was very different from mine.
When I witness Pope Francis washing the feet of the imprisoned, men and women, Christian and others, I see the model trying to be lived out. Others see it differently. Here is one view
I am a young, recently ordained priest. Tonight, I planned on preaching about the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood. How can I speak about such things – the self-offering of Christ, the 12 viri selecti – when our Holy Father is witnessing to something different? I feel like going up to the congregation and saying, “I don’t have any idea what the symbolism of the washing of the feet is. Why don’t we just all do what we want.”
Hmmm? When I look back on my life as leader in the Navy and business I wish I had “washed a few more feet.” Perhaps not a literarily as Jesus, but in a way that served others in a way consist with the mission, vision and values of the company.
Leading is about vision (the Kingdom of God), mission (go to the ends of the earth), and values (salvific service). It is not about doing what one wants. If one is a leader, the people will do what you do. Are you doing was is true, necessary and helpful for them in the light of the Kingdom of God and salvation? And do you let them know why you do what you do? In that moment your values are writ large.
St. Bonaventure once wrote that humility is the gardian and gateway to all the other virtues. It seems to me that Jesus washing feet and the pope washing feet portrays the core value of what it means to serve as priest. Humility – while you are reviewing the parish finances, meeting with the bake sale people, after having heard hours of Holy Week confessions and you thought you might actually get lunch today, another person says, “Hey Father, can you hear one more confession?” – or one of a hundred other tasks that seminary never mentioned. In that moment your sense of vision, mission and action as priest will speak volumes about the model of priest you are enacting. The question is will it model Jesus?
Will people see Jesus in your leadership? Will it encourage them to follow Christ?
That is why we are ordained.