By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 31, 2005
As she sat on the bench, her bare feet resting on the marble floor of the sanctuary of the Cathedral of Christ the King on Holy Thursday, Mary Grace Heller waited patiently for Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to come to her.
Mary Grace, 9, admitted she was nervous as she watched Archbishop Gregory wash the feet of the other 11 children chosen for the Mass, but she said it was worth the wait, even if she was very last in line.
“It felt nice because it was warm and my feet were really cold,” she said.
The Holy Thursday Mass at the Cathedral was held March 24. Twelve children who had made their first Communion in 2004 were chosen to have their feet washed by the archbishop during his first Holy Thursday Mass in Atlanta.
The bilingual Mass drew a huge crowd to the Cathedral, as the congregation stood in the aisles, filled the vestibule and spilled into an overflow room set up in the parish hall.
Leading the procession that began the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the first Communicants walked down the aisle, two by two, the girls in their crisp white dresses and the boys in dark suits, bowing in front of the altar and then filing into the first two pews on either side of the Cathedral. The archbishop, along with nine concelebrating priests, followed.
At last year’s Holy Thursday Mass, then Archbishop John F. Donoghue angered some Catholics by allowing only men to participate in the foot-washing ritual. Last year’s controversy brought the secular media to Archbishop Gregory’s Mass, with news cameras crowding into the front of the Cathedral.
But Archbishop Gregory was not distracted on this first night of the Triduum during the time he called the “twilight hour” for people of faith. Holy Thursday, he said, is all about celebrating memory.
“The Word of God this evening is all about remembering: remembering the ancient Passover Covenant, remembering the gift of Jesus’ Eucharist, and remembering our dignity and our destiny as a servant Church,” he said. “Unfortunately, many of us often forget about these events. Our minds and hearts become so filled with other data and less significant concerns that we may forget that we are a chosen people, as chosen as were the Hebrew sons and daughters of the ancient covenant.”
Even those who regularly attend Mass and receive the Eucharist sometimes “forget the wonderful power of this Gift,” the archbishop said.
“To share in the Eucharist is to publicly proclaim our desire to be one with all those who taste of the Broken Bread and the Cup Poured Out for the Life of the World. Finally, we all certainly forget that service is the destiny of all of those who follow Christ,” he said. “Whether it be foot washing, parish service, community involvement or neighborly concern, we are people who can never forget that we are in the world as those who must serve. Holy Thursday is the Church’s clarion call to remember these important realities and to recommit them to mind and heart.”
Holy Week also sparks memories of Lent and Easter gone by, Archbishop Gregory said.
“There is a nostalgia, which is rich enough to taste during Holy Week. We all have our memories of what these ceremonies and rituals mean and have meant in our own personal histories,” he said. “These days invite us to journey back to our youth and to try to capture many of the traditions that introduced us into the mystery of the Church.”
Holy Thursday reminds people of faith that they are God’s chosen people, “blessed through no merit of our own.”
“We are a people destined to be one, symbolized most perfectly in the Eucharist,” he said.
But too many people suffer from what Archbishop Gregory called a “spiritual Alzheimer’s” for most of the rest of the year.
“Let us this Holy Thursday ask the Lord who has chosen us to strengthen our memories not only this evening—but every evening and morning—to be able to recall not only our own dignity but the dignity which also belongs to everyone who is in Christ.”
Following the homily, three benches were placed in the sanctuary. The 12 first Communicants chosen for the foot-washing ritual, symbolizing the 12 disciples at the Last Supper, sat on the benches and removed their shoes, as the archbishop went from child to child, gently washing his or her feet, speaking softly to each one.
Alejandro Alococer, 12, who was one of six boys in the foot-washing ritual, said it felt “weird.”
Mirian Lopez, 9, said that the archbishop had special words for her as he washed her feet.
“He told me ‘thank you little princess,’” she said.
Mirian’s sister, Maira, 10, said that the archbishop also thanked her.
“He said he was glad I had come. I thought it was amazing because I was getting my feet washed by the archbishop and that’s really special,” she said.
Mary Grace Heller also felt special having her feet washed by the archbishop, and her parents, Rich and Tana, as well as brother Patrick, couldn’t have been prouder.
“We feel very special and blessed,” Rich Heller said. “It’s really been a blessing for our whole family.”
The traditional Holy Thursday Mass is not dismissed until the conclusion of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. After Communion, Archbishop Gregory, cradling the Blessed Sacrament, followed the candle-holding first Communicants and placed the Eucharist into the (open) Tabernacle on the Altar of Repose, allowing parishioners to keep vigil there and remain in prayer.