Last weekend on Radio 4’s Sunday morning programme there was a report on a spiritual retreat held at the Pope’s residence in the Vatican. The retreat was suggested by Archbishop Justin Welby, head of the Anglican Communion, and was attended by political and religious leaders from South Sudan, a country that has been torn by a brutal civil war for the past seven years or so, taking the lives of 400,000 people.
At the end of the retreat there was a meeting with Pope Francis who pleaded with them to keep the fragile peace which has recently been established. The two opposing leaders are Christian. Having finished his talk, Pope Francis stood up, everyone in the room stood with him and he went and knelt to kiss the feet of each of the leaders. Everyone in the room was stunned, shocked by what was taking place and it was said by Martin Bashir – the only journalist present – that everyone was in tears. Pope Francis was following the example of Jesus who “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2)
This action of the Pope is well understood in African cultures where greetings between people are both reverent and humble. In Swahili there is a greeting which is used by a child for an adult, the young for an elder, by the so-called inferior to the so-called superior. The word is “shikamoo” and it means, “let me kiss your feet”. An example of this from the gospel is the woman who anoints and kisses the feet of Jesus. It is an action of profound service and humility.
So, I think to myself, if the leaders from South Sudan were stunned and shocked by what Pope Francis did, then the Apostles would have been equally shocked when Jesus got down on His knees to wash each of their feet. And not only did Jesus get down on His knees in front of the good Apostles, He did so for both Judas and Peter. Each of them went on to offend Jesus in the most serious of ways – by betrayal and denial – and yet one of them became the first Pope, a weak and sinful man who failed in so many ways but had the grace to accept the Mercy of Jesus.
This Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates the first Eucharist that Jesus had with His apostles, a celebration of the service of the ordained priesthood in the Church which is expressed by the holy oils for the Sacraments of Baptism and the anointing of the sick; by the bread and the wine that become the Body and Blood of Jesus.
It is at the consecration of the Eucharist that the priest is most keenly aware of his unworthiness because, in the words of Pope Francis and like Pope Francis, the priest is a sinner in need of Mercy. I am a priest in need of Mercy. Pope and priest fail time and again but neither can escape the fact that he is the anointed of God, not by his own doing but by God and each must time and again turn back to God and seek the right path. It often strikes me that if the Pope or I were employed in a regular job we would be fired for our failures. St. Peter would never have been employed at all. God tends to hire the least so that His own greatness can emerge.
We are as a Church emotionally and spiritually on our knees and rightly so. What I have discovered is that I learn how to be a priest from the community in which I live and serve. Here the children teach me, the congregation at Mass teaches me, those who come to confession teach me, those who are sick teach me and the homeless teach me and I am immensely grateful for what I am learning, for who I am becoming under your guidance.
And when I go down on my knees in front of a child, I discover my true stature; in the Liturgy of the washing of the feet I am, on my knees, in my proper position within this community and I am there with reverence and love.
On Good Friday we too will kiss the feet of Jesus who has already knelt to kiss the feet, the reality of our lives to brings us redemption, healing and mercy.