As I Have Done for You: Reflections on the Washing of the Feet

"Washing of the Feet" by Sr. Mary Grace Thul, OP

"Washing of the Feet" by Sr. Mary Grace Thul, OP

by Jen Owens

Do you know what I have done for you,
You who call me your Teacher and your Lord?
As I have washed your feet,
So you must do as I have done for you.

–“Song of the Lord’s Command,” David Haas

As I sang those words at the Holy Thursday liturgy, I remember praying for peace with the homily that my community and I had just heard. One of the priests who had helped fill in for Masses at our parish had given it, and the way that he had interpreted the Gospel for that day had disappointed me deeply. The story from John of the washing of the feet is one of my favorite in the Gospels. It is one that reminds me of the significance of service, of our need to fight for the kind of life-affirming justice that Jesus fought for, of how integral these things are to our spirituality.

However, the gentle old man stood up in the pulpit and praised the work of the priests in our parish, encouraging young men with a calling to a priestly vocation to pursue it. Please don’t misunderstand me, my home parish has been blessed with committed priests who do wonderful work in our community. It’s not that priests were mentioned as examples of service that frustrated me.

It was everything else that he left out.

It was that there are a number of ways in which we can respond to the call of the Gospel to wash the feet of others, of which religious life is just one. As the homilist glorified the merits of priestly vocation, I thought about all the teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, psychologists, businesspeople, artists, filmmakers, and so many others who take their Catholicism into their work, truly exploring it as a vocation to do good in the world.

It was that priests are members of our community, too, a community that thrives when it is empowered to do the work of the Gospel, as well. The top-down model that this particular priest seemed to advocate did not reflect the reality of a parish that has flourished when the priests who are “in charge,” so to speak, give the parishioners the space to do the work that they do best. His assessment of the Gospels didn’t leave room for liturgy to truly be the work of the people. For him, it seemed, liturgy was the work of the priest, for whom sacramental power is solely reserved.

It was that he raised the contemporary priesthood as a model to be emulated, when the truth of the matter is, the priesthood as it stands is suffering greatly. Vocations are down, pointing to deeper questions that are being asked in our communities about the theology of the priesthood. What is the historical precedent for celibacy in the priesthood? How can we make room in our tradition for married priests, priests who are women, priests who are gay? How do we advocate for these things in a church whose former pope silenced such discussion?

As this Holy Thursday nears, my prayer for the church is this. That we may honor the many ways in which laypeople live out our vocations in a wide variety of workplaces, that may or may not be explicitly faith-filled. That we may widen our understanding of community to value the contributions of all who choose to participate in it, not only the apparent leaders. That we may expand our vision of priestly vocation to be more inclusive of the gifts and talents of those across the spectrum of gender and sexual identity. That we may foster the tools for dialogue that allow open and honest engagement with our tradition, seeking the truth of the Cross toward which Jesus journeys during this holy time.

Jen Owens looks forward to returning to her home parish this summer before beginning doctoral studies in systematic and philosophical theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, this fall.


2 Responses

  1. >”How can we make room in our tradition for married priests, priests who are women, priests who are gay?”

    Two of these threee already exist.

    There are many married Catholic priests with families. Keep in mind that married men may be ordained priests, but ordained priests may not marry. Those married priests are celibate and may not remarry upon death of thir wife.

    Likewise there are many gay Catholic priests; however they also must be celibate. The same standard applies to both priests with heterosexual tendencies as well as to homosexual tendencies. No action on the feeling to sin.

    Women Catholic priests don’t exist and likely never will for lack of authority to ordain and lack of valid sacramental matter. Like it or not, women are biologically different from men down to the sub-cellular level for some reason known only to God. Those agitating for ordination of women would be better served resolving the theological barriers than complaining. Also, the theology has to be resolved to the satisfaction of all 23 Catholic Churchs and not just the largest one at Rome.

    God bless… +Timothy

  2. Thanks for your comment, Timothy. Perhaps I should’ve been clearer with my language.

    I am aware that the church allows those who already have been ordained in other Christian traditions to stay with their wives and families if they choose to convert and enter into ordained ministry within the Catholic fold. However, one of the aspects of ordination reform that I consider to be important is optional celibacy.

    While technically it is true that gay priests minister in our communities, the Vatican has been less than welcoming to our gay brothers in recent years, with statements to seminaries discouraging the admission of men with such a sexual orientation. This is a point of deep sadness for me, in light of the gay men who I know with callings from God to ordination but who fear the climate in seminary around this issue.

    Frankly, the church’s characterization of its inability to ordain women because of a lack of authority to do so does not hold water with me. And feminist theologians have poked plenty of holes in arguments about lack of valid sacramental matter, as you put it.

    The intention behind my post is not to complain, but rather to share an experience that points to the need for reform in our tradition. In fact, I am training myself to be able to overcome “the theological barriers” that stand between wo/men and the pulpit. I know full well that the struggles for reform within Catholicism will not be finished overnight, but I believe very strongly that a forum like this one, which provides a place for open discussion for those of like and different minds, is vital to those struggles. It’s a small step toward a larger goal.

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