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Priests gathered around the washing of the feet

Holy Thursday: Our Example of Love and Service

April 6, 2023


“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” 

—John 13:13-15

These words echo loudly from the heart of today’s Gospel. Around the world, the Church celebrates the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper. During that intimate moment with his dear friends, Jesus gave his disciples examples of love and service and commissioned them to do the same. Love and service are integral to today’s liturgical worship. 

Most Catholics know that the Lord instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, but not as many are aware that he also instituted the priesthood at that same meal. It is through the Eucharist and the priesthood that Jesus continues to love and serve his flock, as these go hand in hand, and the consequences of this dynamic relationship are pivotal for our salvation. 

An oft-forgotten detail of Holy Thursday is the high priestly prayer of Jesus. The Lord prays this prayer after the Last Supper and just before his Agony in the Garden, subsequent betrayal, and arrest. That prayer is the entirety of chapter 17 of John’s Gospel. (I invite you to meditate on John 17 today.) Through those verses, we hear the vulnerable cry of the heart of Jesus to his heavenly Father. In a way, it is the Lord’s final will and testament. He prays for unity among his flock and for his Father to keep them safe. It is through the Eucharist and the priesthood that God maintains unity and safety among the sheep of his flock. The Lord not only prays for this, he initiates the means for it to come about. Love and service are indispensable in the Lord’s call for unity, security, and peace. 

The Lord calls us to love and serve. That love and service maintains unity and peace.

Another beautiful detail of this day is that around the world, priests will join their bishops in the celebration of the Chrism Mass. In addition to blessing the holy oils used in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders, the bishop calls his priests to renew their priestly promises. In the middle of the Mass, all the priests of the diocese renew their promises of chastity, obedience, and fidelity to prayer and ministry. Holy Thursday is a day when every priest around the world renews his particular covenantal vows with the Lord through their bishop. Love and service are necessary for unity, security, and peace, and that is only possible through faithful and dedicated ministry. 

As you can tell, this is a big day for a priest. It’s a day that brings my brothers and me much joy. It’s also a great day to stop and reflect on how to love and serve. A day to consider what I’ve done to unite, protect, and bring peace to the sheepfold. To be honest, I can think of a lot that I’ve done. I’m faithful to ministry and truly go above and beyond. I’m certain most priests can say they do the same. While that is not a bad thing, the Lord invites us to reconsider our approach on this day of the Eucharist and priesthood. The Lord invites me and my brother priests to slow down for a minute. He invites us to simply graze with the flock. It’s easy to focus on the things to do in ministry. It’s also easy to forget to slow down and be present to the present moment. The Lord doesn’t want me to complete things on my to-do list. The Lord wants me to focus on the face in front of me. 

This Holy Thursday, I recall the intentionality of the Lord with his disciples on that sacred night. The Lord invites me to recline at table with him. The Lord invites me to have that same intentionality. 

My spiritual director recently gave me a poem to reflect on that drove this fact home. I share it with you here: 

The education of a pastor is a complex process. 
What is lost is simplicity of thought. 
Simple, clear, direct thinking 
born of the silence within the heart 
will keep your soul in God. 

Church development takes much pastoral time. 
What is lost is patient waiting. 
Souls are really what we’re growing, 
and these will grow at their own pace. 
Blessed is the pastor who has learned to wait 
for souls to blossom. 

Taking care of others will drain a pastor’s strength. 
What is lost is compassion for his own soul. 
How can he pretend to love the Spirit, 
when his own receives so little care? 
Every soul within the congregation is blessed 
when he keeps his own alive and well. 

A pastor’s life is spread so thin. 
What is lost is depth. 
Go deep, not thin. 

(William C. Martin, The Art of Pastoring: Contemplative Reflections: Pittsburgh, 1994. p. 67) 

In my mad exercise of priestly ministry, I find that I have a tendency to spread myself thin. I think many priests do. We don’t do that because we are bad people. We do that because we truly want to love, protect, and serve our flocks at all costs. The problem is that we forget that we need to be loved, protected, and served too.

The Lord reminds us today that he is here to love, protect, and serve us. Today, Christ invites us to plunge into the depths of his merciful love. The Lord doesn’t want us to be thin. He wants us to be deep. That requires that our love for him be deep.

“For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 17:15). During that final meal with his dear friends, the Lord gave his disciples an example to follow. At that Last Supper, the Lord went deep. It is my prayer that I go deep in ministry, not thin. Pray for me. Pray for your priest. Our ministry of the priesthood is only possible with your continued prayers. You see, we are in this together. The Lord calls us to love and serve. That love and service maintains unity and peace. That is only possible if we are faithful to a deep relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Go deep, not thin.