Published April 15, 2004
This is the homily given by Archbishop John F. Donoghue on Holy Thursday at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta.
Dear Friends in Christ,
As our Lord’s time on earth grew shorter, He understood that certain things must take place, before He was to be taken away from His Apostles, from the Twelve whom He had chosen and appointed to continue His work in the world, a work that is to last until the end of time.
And on this night, He was even more anxious to complete His plan for the future, because He knew that already, one of His friends had become an enemy, and that time was growing short.
On this evening of the Passover Meal, there was no time to waste.
But there was time to complete the plan. This Passover Meal, which had begun the searching of the Hebrews so many centuries before, was now to provide the blueprint for a new meal—a meal no longer of searching—a new meal of finding—a meal not only to remember the sacrifice that Jesus was to make for us all, but a meal to indicate the direction we are to follow—a map to show us the way to Heaven.
And so, in these final hours, our Lord gathered about Him, as the Gospel says, those He had loved most in the world, and whom He would love until the end—the ones He had called by name—the ones to carry on the work for as long as time shall last.
Our Lord did not do this to exclude all who had come to believe in Him and to follow Him. For three years, He had tirelessly lived among the people, teaching them the new way—the way of faith, hope and love. He had let the people hear His word and see His power, and wherever He had passed, there was always healing—healing of the body and healing of the soul. And when He had passed, His memory left only a legacy of peace. In this journey to reveal salvation, the Lord had included all men and women.
But now, on His last evening, Christ must put into place two things: the way by which He will continue to live among all men and women and ministers to make sure that the way is always available.
The first He gave us by giving us His own Body and Blood. These were the sacrifice which would be sealed the next day, in His terrible suffering and awesome death, suffering at the hands of men, and death upon the cross. But on this night, in the setting of the Passover Meal, our Lord makes a new meal—a meal which will last until the end of time. “This is my body…this is my blood…eat and drink what is given for you.” And St. Paul explains, that as long as we carry in us the broken Body and the shed Blood of our Lord, we proclaim His death, until He comes again in glory—comes to lead those who have grown on this Eucharist, into the everlasting Kingdom of peace.
The second thing our Lord does is to institute a body of ministers, whose entire lives will be dedicated to this action—the daily re-enactment of the Last Supper, and the bringing into being, His Body and Blood. We cannot pass off this event as if it were just another lesson about human service, and human equality. The priesthood is not something ordinary. It is, in fact, an extraordinary sign of God’s plan for our existence. And these two events—the institution of the Eucharist, and the washing of the Apostle’s feet by our Lord, are at the heart of our commemoration—at the heart of what we celebrate on Holy Thursday night, as we seek to understand, not our will as superimposed upon the actions of the Lord, but our Lord’s will for us.
In order to establish the priesthood, it was not enough that our Lord said, “Do this in memory of me.” On this occasion, He went to great lengths to make clear what the nature of the priestly vocation was to be. He did this by kneeling down before these men and by washing the dirt from their feet.
St. Peter, in his energetic desire to please the Lord, adopts an attitude of false modesty. “You will never wash my feet,” he protests to the Lord. But our Lord looks into his eyes, this prince of the Apostles, this rock upon which the Church is to stand, and says, “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” And Peter, understanding, and accepting, for himself, for the Apostles, and for every priest who is to follow in service to the Church, says from his heart, “Then Master, not only my feet, but my hands and head as well.”
And thus, the priesthood of the Catholic Church, in its very birth, gains a character that is to make it unlike any ministry before or since—a ministry whose reason for being is the making and giving of the Body and Blood of our Savior—a ministry wiped clean, by the action of our Lord, from every distraction, every inclination, every thought that anything could be more important than this—the forgiving of sins, and the giving of our Lord’s Body and Blood—God the Father’s prescription for the life of the soul, and the health of His every living child. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Does it benefit us to make this action of our Lord, reported faithfully by the evangelist, a pretext for protest, or for generalizing the specific institution of Holy Orders into a generic lesson about service? Some say yes—but I do not think so.
For me, and I most sincerely invite all to share with me this conviction—for me, this Mass of Holy Thursday is to remember two things. First, the generosity of our Lord in making the sacrifice of His Body and Blood available to men and women for all time—and second, the new generosity of the human spirit which He brought into being that night, and which lives in the Catholic Church in the fraternity of the ordained priesthood.
And in this time, not only should we be moved to thanksgiving for what we have received—we should also be moved, by the crisis of our Church and of the world, a crisis of faith and morals, to beg God to send into the hearts of many more young men, a call to this same priesthood, this same service Christ created by His will, and described by His actions, on the night before He died. This need for more priests outweighs any other interest that we might perceive in the events we recollect on this holy night.
Dear friends, for our Lord and His friends and His holy Mother, the events of this week rushed precipitously to their conclusion, and gave them all barely a moment to stop and think and consider what was happening. Our Lord knew this, and even said: “What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.”
Let us pray, now and forever, that the Holy Spirit will continue to guide the Church and fill her with understanding, and that we who serve the Lord and His Church, by obedience and by charity, may be given understanding to know what we should do, and what we should not do. For when Christ comes again, a coming we proclaim by receiving this Eucharist, it will be as a King of both mercy and justice. The balance He will read in how we have used our free will, whether to serve Him or to serve ourselves. May His utter humility, shown so beautifully this night before His death, be the guide for our lives, so that like Jesus, we may say, and mean, “Not my will, but thine be done.”