Pope Francis famously said at the last World Youth Day that he wants a mess in the Church: “What is it that I expect as a consequence of World Youth Day? I want a mess. We knew that in Rio there would be great disorder, but I want trouble in the dioceses!”
That line came to mind as we planned in the abbey for a revised foot washing this year at the Holy Thursday Mass. Drawing on the inspiration of Pope Francis’s practice of breaking the rules and washing the feet of women as well as men, Abbot John called for us to open up the rite even further and invite the entire congregation to wash one another’s feet. We monks know from his past addresses to the community that he is drawing also on his very powerful experience of foot-washing with “Bridgefolk,” the Mennonite-Catholic dialogue group.
“The Son of Man has come to serve, not to be served,” Abbot John reminded us in his homily last night. Preaching freely and without a prepared text, the abbot continued:
And he said, “Just as I have washed your feet, so you must wash each other’s feet.” That’s what he says to us. And because of that incredible action, and because of those wonderful liberating words, that’s why we’re washing each other’s feet tonight. It’s why we’ve changed our practice. We think we can have a greater sense and share in the actual teaching and words of Jesus.
The abbey church is a challenging space for this type of communal ritual, with lots of steps, and upper choir stalls and lower choir stalls, and closely-packed in rows of regimented pews. A certain Anthony Ruff suggested at chapter that we move the Mass to the neighboring Great Hall, the beautiful neo-Romanesque former Abbey Church that was deconsecrated in 1961 when the new concrete church was built. We could all be on the same level there, with no steps for guests to navigate, and we could sit on chairs to avoid the constriction of the pews. (And better acoustics for singing, he might have added but didn’t.)
“No”, schola conductor Br. Nick said in an email. “I’d like us to make a mess in the abbey church.”
And so it was.
The abbot concluded his homily with an invitation for all to join in the foot-washing, and instructions for the set-up of foot-washing stations:
Washing feet is… it can only stay solemn so long… So as we do that, there will be six stations. We really intend this to be one space. So please move up into the sanctuary, confreres [monks] come down to these stations…”
This mess in the abbey church is perhaps one of the most moving ritual I’ve been part of there. People were moving about freely, with shoes and socks all over, and the kind of funny sight of bare-footed vested concelebrants and acolytes walking around. Among us were several Mennonite Catholics who bring their previous experience of Mennonite foot-washing into their Catholic piety.
The people sang throughout – the Psallite “A new commandment,” Steve Janco’s “I give you a new commandment,” and a piece I got from the Sistine choir and adapted to English after I heard it sung at the installation of Pope Benedict XVI, “May these three remain in us.”
The spontaneous practice arose here and there of washer and washee embracing each other after the washing. So much was going on at the same time: washing, singing, hugging, wiping feet, putting on and taking off shoes, restocking the towel supply, wiping up spilled water.
I looked around and said to myself, “This is a place of love. This is a place of joy. This is a place of beauty.”
Here are some screen-capture photos of it.
As is our custom, the Liturgy of the Eucharist on this day is rather solemn. We sang Christopher Mueller’s beautiful Missa pro edition tertia Mass setting, giving all four parts to the congregation. Latin chant Agnus Dei, Pange lingua alternating in Latin and English, with polyphonic Latin Tantum ergo by the schola at the Altar of Repose.
It all fit together quite well, I thought. Our spontaneous and active involvement in the foot-washing drew us all the more deeply into the mystery and meaning of the Blessed Eucharist.
It left me grateful for many things: the free spirit of Pope Francis, the spiritual leadership of Abbot John, and of course above all, the example and teaching of Our Savior.