FAR AND AWAY the best homily I ever heard on Holy Thursday was given by my good friend, Maryknoll Father John McAuley, currently serving in China. With unabashed pride (and very rare humility), I will attempt to recapture the essence of his talk for us to reflect upon this Holy Thursday.
It was during Holy Week in 2002 in the midst of the clergy abuse scandal that John delivered this homily at our retirement home in Los Atos, California, where we were holding a Vocations Retreat. (This in itself was no easy task, with the scandals coming out almost on a daily basis. I mean, really, how do you diplomatically say, "Welcome aboard the Titanic!"?)
As we gathered for this most ancient of Catholic rituals, John pointed out that Holy Thursday was more than a solemn celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood, which it is. On the night before he died, Jesus and the apostles celebrated the Last Supper at a time of gut-wrenching disintegration. Everything they held dear was falling apart around them. Their future looked bleak. And their situation was about to get nightmarishly worse.
Yet in the midst of this time of uncertainty, fear and confusion, Jesus took bread and gave God thanks and praise. He blessed and broke the bread and asked us to share it in his name. And whenever we did this, he would be present to us: especially in the midst of our darkest moments of doubt, disillusionment and danger.
Eight years have passed since John gave this homily. Alas, the clouds of scandal have not dispersed nor the anger and confusion dissipated. Oh, the Vatican can react with righteous indignation at the secular press and media, no doubt stoked by enemies of the Church, intentionally dragging up and distorting old cases which may or may not have had the complicity of then Cardinal Ratzinger. IMHO this misses the point entirely.
In the public mind (both of Catholics and the wider society), the Church has not done adequate penance for its sins. Penance is more than just public apologies; penance is a good faith effort to make amends for the harm that our sins have caused, and this cannot be satisfied with mere dollar signs.
At a retreat later that same year, 2002, Father Richard Rohr said, "A problem cannot be solved by the same mentality that caused it." There it is in a nutshell.
Unless we (and I'm including all the clergy and hierarchy in this) rend our hearts and not just our garments, unless we convert our way of thinking, unless we put on the very mind of Christ, this situation may never go away, much less be resolved.
How do we celebrate Maundy Thursday? By the Washing of Feet. Jesus takes the position of a servant and commands us to do the same. This is not fulfilled by ceremoniously re-enacting some ritual once a year, and especially not by the pope washing the feet of priests and seminarians (certainly not of women, God forbid!) This makes the exact opposite point Jesus was trying to make, and serves only to re-enforce the public perception of the Church as an "old boys club."
Jesus gives us a new commandment ("Mandatum" in Latin, hence "Maundy" Thursday via Old English). "Love one another, as I have loved you." But if we clerical types limit this just to taking care of fellow priests in the ordained priesthood, our Church is doomed.
Oh would that the Holy Father felt for the victims as deeply as he does for the institutional Church! Would that he and every bishop and every priest in every parish around the world wash the feet of all the people whom we have offended by our arrogance, insensitivity, callousness and pride. Granted it would take more than a few minutes during a once-a-year ritual, so this should be our attitude throughout the year.
This would go a long way of not simply healing the Church of our self-inflicted wounds, but would, as much as the Eucharist itself, reveal the abiding presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that woud be Good News indeed.