Simon Peter said, “Master, then not only my feet, but my hands and head as well!” (John 13:9)
Such is Peter’s exclamation upon learning that unless he allows his feet to be washed by Jesus, he cannot be in communion with him. We recall that Peter at first adamantly refused to be washed. Contrary to this scene in scripture, the transition from radical independence to radical submission is hardly a rapid process in most of our spiritual journeys. And yet, for a diocesan priest, this transition is absolutely critical.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the liturgy at which the foot washing scene from John’s Gospel is read is the very one which celebrates the institution of the priesthood: Holy Thursday Mass. When a man enters seminary, it is only natural that he usually feels he is following God’s call (uncertain though his discernment may be at that time) and he probably has some concept in his mind of what priesthood will look like for him and how he will choose to live out that life. More likely than not, he is driven by a strong desire to serve others, to prepare himself to be a good evangelizer, and to act as the “hands of Christ” in the world. All of these are important and holy perspectives to hold, but they still are too self-reliant. A man who is single-mindedly focused on spreading the love of Christ in the world has yet to experience what it means to be single-mindedly loved by Christ.
For seminarians, Holy Week presents a tight narrative that encapsulates the journey from “I’ve chosen Christ” to “I’ve allowed myself to be chosen by him.” Such a journey can only be achieved via the poignancy of having one’s emotional defenses cracked and the sting of healing love poured into the deepest wounds of heart and mind. Peter’s joy at seeing the risen Christ came at the cost of having his pride broken at the foot washing and his realization of the intensity of Jesus’ love for him. From being washed by Christ, to denying his friendship in the courtyard, to joyfully receiving his Spirit at Pentecost: this is the Paschal Mystery that every one of us is called upon to enter into. Unless you experience that you are radically loved, you will never assent to enter into the dark, disorienting corners of the heart with the confidence that they can be transformed into light and peace.
During Holy Week, most seminarians will be back in their home dioceses and parishes. They will be powerfully reminded of their own faith journeys and life journeys; they will be with familiar faces and will recall many memories, both joyful and haunting. Many of you reading this will be a part of those homecomings, others will be praying for those who are. As you encounter these men, or as you pray for them, do not be afraid to let your own hearts be accompanied by Christ into the very core of his Paschal Mystery. To share that journey as the Body of Christ is the only authentic way to pass from Holy Thursday’s humility into Easter Sunday’s joy.
Together with you in Christ, we are Mundelein. We form parish priests.
Fr. John Kartje