Holy Thursday Mass from Rome was blaring from my father’s television set as I ate my lunch in the next room. It’s a familiar scene in our household. Dad, a former daily Mass-goer, doesn’t go out much anymore. He has been practically immobilized by ALS for some years now. So before anyone had ever heard of a coronavirus, he was already in the habit of watching Mass every day in his “hospital room,” which used to be our family living room.
The Pope’s Holy Thursday homily was about the Priesthood. I heard him talking about missionary priests who died of exotic diseases far from their homelands so that others might know Christ. He was trying to explain Jesus’ statement to Peter that unless he allowed Jesus to wash his feet, he could not be in fellowship with him. His point was that Christ empowers those he calls to the Priesthood to show great love and mercy by first showing them his great love and mercy. He concluded by exhorting the faithful not to be like Peter, but to permit Jesus to wash our feet so that we might wash the feet of others in communion with him.
As I was capping my lunch with a warm, pillowy siopao (a Filipino-style steamed bun), a cantor began chanting the universal prayer. It dawned on me that the focal rite of the Holy Thursday liturgy, the washing of the feet, had been omitted—obviously because it would have been impossible to carry out without violating social distancing directives. The sadness of present circumstances sank in just a bit deeper. But then I heard someone chanting the Ubi Caritas, and I wondered if I had somehow gotten the order of the liturgy mixed up, and if they had decided to do the foot washing anyway. So I put my siopao down and peeked into the other room.
And sure enough, there was the washing of the feet. Only, not on the TV. It looked like the Pope was preparing the gifts at the altar. The foot washing was taking place not in Rome but at home, in my dad’s bedroom. My mother was cleaning my father with a red washcloth as they both watched the Mass, and just at the moment I walked in the room, she was washing his feet. The scene was a living icon. My father’s bearded face spoke silently of serenity, humility and gratitude as my mother bent her head over his left foot, carefully wiping his toes clean. Where there is charity in truth, God is there.
In the year 2020, the image of a Priest taking off his outer garment and washing the feet of others lives on in our memories (and probably also on YouTube). But the washing of feet is taking place all around us. It’s happening on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, here in the United States and throughout the world. It’s happening where doctors and nurses are risking their lives to take care of their patients, where store owners and employees are continually supplying us with food, where city employees continue to clock in to provide us with essential services. Where there is charity in truth, God is there.
Some of us are unable to serve in such profound and heroic ways at the present moment. This is not because we are any less important or valuable than anyone else. Some of us, like my dad, are in the category of vulnerable people, while others work in sectors that have been designated non-life sustaining. And even those on the front lines cannot do it all, but must at times step back and allow others to take the lead in the work of sustaining life, even allowing others to serve them. Whatever the reason, each of us at some point will find himself or herself in a position where all he or she can do is accept the love, the charity, the mercy of others, and receive this with gratitude.
The good people at Google seem to grasp this. For at least the past week, the big ‘G’ on the Google home page has been blowing kisses to the ‘e’ and sometimes the ‘l’, which have been dressed up as doctors, police officers, firefighters, janitors, farmers, and infectious disease experts: Google dubs them “coronavirus helpers.” Most of these Google Doodles bear a caption that says, “Thank you.” And I think this message resonates, in spite of the fact that some still seem to be in it for themselves alone. I recently heard a report about the theft of a massive shipment of protective masks intended for a hospital in Honolulu. But I think, I hope, that selfish acts of this kind represent the minority, that gratitude will have the last word.
I think COVID-19 is underlining a basic truth that we sometimes forget. We ‘Mericans tend to think of ourselves as self-reliant. Yet none of us can earn all that we need to sustain our lives. On some basic level, each of us simply needs to wait for someone else to reach out to us and love us, and when we receive this gift, the only appropriate response is to give thanks. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” for they have shed the illusion that they have merited their way to whatever prosperity they might enjoy. All of us are poor and needy; all stand in need of grace. And thanks be to God, someone stepped up and provided for us in the hour of our need. Someone took the lead. Someone took off his or her outer garment and stooped down to wash our feet.
I’ve kept in touch with a number of Priests in the Diocese of Scranton over the past few weeks. They’re not allowed to visit the sick in the hospitals right now. As far as I know, they are not permitted to celebrate baptisms or funeral Masses, weddings, the sacrament of confession or public liturgies of any kind, such as the Holy Thursday liturgy with the traditional rite of foot washing. All continue to pray and to celebrate Masses privately, and many have also made religious content available online or reached out to parishioners by phone. Still, to some people, the priesthood may not seem to be quite as “useful” in the present historical moment as they were before the pandemic.
Yet the Holy Thursday liturgy, or at least our memories of it, and the role of the Priest in that liturgy remind us that all of us need some of us to take the lead in the work of charity, love, and mercy. God loved us first. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet so that they in turn could wash the feet of others. What every Priest does symbolically on Holy Thursday night—or at least what every Priest has done on Holy Thursday up until this year—is what every Priest is called to with his entire life. When a Priest is faithful to his calling and takes the lead in charity, love, and mercy, the Spirit uses that Priest to radiate the perfect love of Jesus Christ to those who encounter him. And those touched by the life of that Priest are themselves empowered to live out the Priesthood that belongs to all the baptized by radiating that same love to all those in need, until the God who is Love will be all in all.
The generous support of friends, family, and of countless “coronavirus helpers” have enabled me to remain safely at home with my family and to help give my father the care and attention he needs in these exceptional times. I am deeply grateful to all those who have put their lives on the line for the health and safety of my family and others who are not able to contribute directly to these life-sustaining ministries at the present moment. I am also most grateful today for the gift of the Priesthood—for Priests whose lives give testimony, in season and out of season, to the love of God who loved us first, before we were ever able to muster some shred of love for others, or even for ourselves. I am grateful for the Priests who introduced me to the God who continues to say, “This is my body, this is my blood,” to an empty church, to an electronic camera, to an internet community that might not even be listening.
This is the kind of Priest that I hope to be when, God willing, I am ordained to the Priesthood in 2021. I want everyone to know the God who continues to take the lead in loving me, so that when I just don’t feel like giving any more, I can turn to Him for the grace and strength to love those who might not be able, or willing, to love me back right now.
Easter Sunday celebrates the undying love of God that alone can conquer COVID-19. The love of Jesus never faltered, enduring rejection, public shaming, unimaginable suffering, and finally death on a cross. The Resurrection shows that God’s love for us finally won out in the life and death of Jesus Christ. And this love continues to radiate in those who are so selflessly providing for us what we cannot provide for ourselves during this global pandemic. We know this love will conquer COVID-19 because in Jesus Christ, it has already conquered the world. In the midst of the fear and uncertainty of our present moment, faith takes hold of the certainty of Christ’s victory over every illness and every pandemic. The love of God conquers all. That love is what we celebrate this Easter; for that love we give thanks.
Christ is risen! Happy Easter.