By Fr. Bernie Weir
I don’t know about you but I don’t touch many people’s feet. And I for sure don’t wash anyone’s feet. Even on Holy Thursday it is only a symbolic washing. I don’t actually touch their feet with my bare hands.
Caregivers touch feet and wash them. Moms and dads touch babies’ and little children’s feet, but at some point they stop touching their children’s feet. I don’t know the last time that my father touched my feet and I don’t remember ever touching his. In the American culture it just isn’t done.
Yet, on Holy Thursday one of our most treasured rituals is the washing of the feet. It is always hard to get people to say yes to having their feet washed. Men think their feet are ugly (and they are). Women’s feet aren’t nearly as bad because they go and get a pedicure that morning.
I never understood the washing of the feet until I saw Father Keleher, later to become Bishop Keleher, wash someone’s feet in real life. His simple act taught me what it is to care for those in need. What I learned that day was one of the most important lessons I learned in the seminary and in my life. How I try to treat people was changed that day.
Here is what happened.
We were volunteering at a downtown Chicago men’s homeless shelter in the winter. One of the men had been causing problems all evening and needed to be removed by the police. The man was disgusting. To say that he smelled bad would have been kind. He had vomited on himself and Bishop Keleher. He had wet himself, as well as any other thing you can think of. He was drunk, angry and looking for a fight, but could barely stand. The man was disgusting.
At some point in the evening he has taken off his shoes and the one sock he had. When the police arrived and were ready to remove the man, Bishop Keleher stopped them and said, “Let me help him get his shoes on; it is cold outside.” This man had already thrown up on the bishop. Bishop Kelleher finds the man’s shoes and one sock. He wipes the bottom of the man’s feet with his bare hands and puts his shoes and one sock on him.
That was the first time I had ever seen someone wash another’s feet. In the Gospel on Holy Thursday Jesus says, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
I only hope and pray that when it is time to wash another’s feet that I can do it.
(Fr. Weir is pastor of St. James Parish in Washington.)