Holy Thursday and Humility

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We are into our second Paschal Triduum in the age of COVID. I’m preparing this post at the start of March, but I cannot imagine that many feet will be washed at this evening’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

There are likely no cases of COVID linked to the washing of feet and our Church has, by all accounts, been impeccable in following the guidelines from health authorities.

Regardless of what happens, the celebration and its traditional ritual of the washing of feet, in imitation of Jesus’s actions in John 13, will look radically different from what happened many centuries ago.

Even if masks and disposable gloves are used, it just won’t seem the same. Perhaps it is better to just skip this ritual, rather than have a cheap imitation. I suspect that there are other simple acts of service offered to us by Jesus: the Good Samaritan, giving a cup of water to a person in need, not being afraid to touch a leper or other outsider, and so on. Christian tradition is not lacking in reminders of humble service.

We all know that Pope Francis threw one of his curve balls at us when he famously washed the feet of people in a juvenile detention centre on his first Holy Thursday as Pope. Not all twelve were male. Nor were they all Christians. It’s traditional that those whose feet are washed are all males because the twelve apostles were all male.

However, as long as I can remember, there have been parishes and settings such as retreat centres where the presider has included women in the ritual. On the other hand, I can recall seeing situations where the chosen twelve are not just all males; they have also been among the most influential parishioners.

I have no evidence, but I suspect that there were situations where they were probably among the most generous with their financial contributions to the parish. It always struck me as odd that the ritual, a strong statement about service, should be turned into a kind of reward for exclusively male leaders in the community.

Thus, I welcomed the decision by Pope Francis to change the policy in the universal Church regarding who can participate in the washing of feet at the Holy Thursday liturgy. And perhaps, just perhaps, the new realities of a COVID world mean that we have to re-think the usual rituals.

Francis said that the rite should no longer be limited to men and boys, but also include women and young girls. Francis wrote that the change is an attempt to “express the full meaning of the gesture performed by Jesus at the Last Supper, his gift of himself to the end for the salvation of the world, his boundless charity.”

The Pope stresses that it was only after careful consideration that he decided to make a change in the Roman Missal. The actual change in wording says, “Pastors may choose a group of faithful representing the variety and unity of every part of the People of God. This group may consist of men and women, and ideally of the young and old, healthy and sick, clerics, consecrated persons and laypeople.”

This change is another example of Francis shifting the focus from who can participate, to the power of what we are actually commemorating. Here, of course, it is boundless charity and service. “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

This evening’s celebration is a suitable time for all of us to reflect on the humility of Jesus and what his example means for each of us in our ways of being leaders. Christ came not to be served, but to serve. The washing of the feet is just one example of a humble action.

Each of us has to find our own path. Is it washing up after a sick person has made a mess? Is it not defending ourselves when someone has uttered lies about us? Perhaps it’s in our decision to refrain from boasting about ourselves when we’ve achieved something special.

It may be a choice to wash the toilets even though it’s not our responsibility. Humility is not confined to just one action. Jesus showed us that it’s a way of life. Let’s take time at this evening’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper to consider the humility of Jesus and the example he is setting us.


Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

  • Vicky Chen
    Posted at 05:04h, 01 April Reply

    Grateful for your emphasis on the ‘washing of feet’ on Holy Thursday, the command given to us all by Jesus before his passion. How often do I follow this with my heart and spirit in my word and action? We did not have communal celebration of Lent or Easter in 2020. Let us pray that there will not be a total lockdown announcement today.

  • Bernice Dookhan-Khan
    Posted at 08:09h, 01 April Reply

    Thanks for this beautiful reflection,
    Fr. Shano. God bless.

  • Paul Miki
    Posted at 08:11h, 01 April Reply

    Thank you, Philip.
    Paul Miki

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 08:37h, 01 April Reply

    Thank you Philip!

  • Mariah Snyder
    Posted at 09:38h, 01 April Reply

    When bishops and pastors stick to washing the feet of only males as that is what Jesus had done, although we are not sure about that, did they only wash the feet of Jewish males as that is what the 12 were? The Church can get so taken up with wording like the Pharisees did. Pope Francis sees beyond the words to the true teaching of Jesus.

  • Esther Gilbert
    Posted at 09:51h, 01 April Reply

    Philip, you’ve knocked it out of the park for me today as I’ve stumbled into your post this morning. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.

    I think this must be creating some inner searching for some Catholics. I am not one but I can appreciate the up heaving that could occur. We, Quakers, have our own.
    Thank you Pope Francis.

    Both of you, for turning my attention where it belongs today.

  • Jim Radde
    Posted at 12:45h, 01 April Reply

    I loved it Philip.

  • Grace Colella
    Posted at 16:21h, 01 April Reply

    Thank you Philip for this inspiring reflection reminding us yet again of Jesus’ humility and our call to follow Him.

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