The Holy Thursday congregation had gathered in the Cathedral to celebrate the first of the three holy days of Easter. This evening the people came to remember the Last Supper and the direction that Jesus gave to his followers to live in communion in memory of him. The few priests who accompanied the Bishop in the Procession to the sanctuary would probably also remember with gratitude and fondness this night as the origin of the sacrament of their ordination. And there would be the Washing of the Feet, to remember how Jesus had washed the feet of his friends and told them to wash each other’s feet. The Bishop would put on a special apron and kneel to wash the spotless feet of twelve members of the parish who could be relied on to participate with dignity. The choir would sing to provide a background for thought and prayer during the foot washing.

After the reading of the Scriptures, the Bishop continued the Liturgy without a Homily. The acolytes arranged the chairs in the sanctuary under the direction of the Master of Ceremonies. As usual, two rows of six faced each other. The Bishop came to the front of the sanctuary and gestured a welcome to twelve men and women seated in the congregation who made their way quietly forward to the chairs.

Those in the congregation who regularly attended the Cathedral for Mass realized straight away that these were not local parishioners, and a slight hum of inquiry as to who these twelve might be floated through the pews. As the choir began its first hymn, the Bishop took off his outer vestments and stood before the chairs in his alb and stole. He waved aside the apron offered by the Acolyte, and knelt squarely before the first person seated, feet bare, waiting for the washing.  The warm water flowed over the old man’s nervous feet and the Bishop’s hands carefully held and washed one foot after the other before drying them with a soft towel.  A brief word, a smile, a touch of hands between them and the Bishop rose and moved to the next chair. At the third chair, he faced a middle aged woman who smiled at him and offered her feet to be washed. Having washed and dried her feet, he rose from his knees. She held his hand to steady him and looking into his eyes, said, “Thank you from all of us who are not here”. Up till now he had not looked into the eyes of those whose feet he was washing. He was engaged in a liturgical action, not one of nurture or intimacy. But now he could not avoid looking at her eyes. A tremor ran through him and deep inside him a sob arose. Tears came to his eyes. He caught his breath, smiled and moved to the next person.  The choir director, aware that something unexpected had occurred and that perhaps the Washing might take longer than usual, began to review mentally which music resources he would choose to cover what might be a possible disruption.

By the time the Bishop was half way through the Washing and had crossed to the other row of chairs, the usual restlessness in the onlooking congregation had given way to a quiet wondering about what was going on in the sanctuary. The washing of each person’s feet by now had become an encounter, eyes meeting, a few words exchanged and sometimes a hand extended to the Bishop’s shoulder in friendship and appreciation.  At the twelfth washing, after the Bishop had dried his feet, the young man took hold of the Bishop’s face in his hands, looked into his teary eyes and said to him quietly, “God bless you for your courage”. This time the sob, previously held in place leapt free as the Bishop’s body shook. He turned towards the altar, still kneeling, covering his face with his hands. The twelve washed came to stand quietly round him, holding him and soothing him with words as his weeping and sobbing continued. The choir, out of music by now and inspiration too, stood silent. The congregation waited, with whispers of uncertainty circulating. Finally, one of the priests seated in the sanctuary came to the Bishop’s side and led him back to his seat. The Master of Ceremonies ushered the twelve to their seats in the congregation and waited. Everyone waited for some direction to be given.

After a few minutes silence, the Bishop stood, put on his outer vestments and walked slowly to the front of the sanctuary to speak to the congregation.

My dear friends, each year we invite worthy members of our congregation to have their feet washed to remember what Jesus showed us as an example.  This year I invited twelve men and women who have told me of their experience of sexual, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of people who represent the Church as clergy, religious and lay employees. It is likely that you have never seen them before because most of them have lost their confidence in the Church and do not join us any more at Mass. They tell me that they are not believed when they relate their experience of abuse, but I believe them. They say that they are rejected for causing trouble and lessening public respect for the church, but I welcome them for giving us the chance to come clean, be truthful and make amends.

I chose to bring these twelve out of the shadows into the light on this blessed night. I thought that I would be a channel of Christ’s peace for them in this setting so that they might feel welcome and know that they have a place of grace in our church just as we all believe that we do. I had no idea what this would do to me.

My heart is broken by this moment and my tears flow when I think of their suffering, many as small children; of their isolation and loneliness; of the indifference and rejection they have met when they sought a hearing and remedies from the church. Their gracefulness to me in the Washing of the Feet this evening has left me washed all over with God’s grace. I am left now with a soft heart and a just purpose for these and all who have suffered as they have. I have a contrite heart and a firm purpose now for those clergy and other workers whom I have not known well enough to realize both their weakness and their cruelty. To avoid embarrassment for the church and myself, I have preferred to move them from my sight to situations where I hoped that they would be unlikely to harm others. I realize that I have acted without the care that both perpetrators and their victims have a right to expect.

My heart is open and my purpose is just also towards you all from whom I have preferred loyalty and compliance in many things to make my job easier, rather than have you speak out truthfully and courageously so that I could respond with leadership worthy of Christ. I intend to make amends with your help and God’s grace.

This Holy Thursday evening begins the three days of the Easter Liturgy for 2010. At the same time, here in this Cathedral this evening our Washing the Feet of victims of abuse is our first step in the Way of the Cross that our Church is taking at present.  For some time yet, on our journey of conversion we, the Church, will experience suffering that heals us and brings us integrity. Only when our ways of using our power have changed will we be willing and able to receive the new life that God offers us.  The abuse of the vulnerable by both perpetrators and Church leadership reveals us as not worthy to claim at present that we are firmly in the footsteps of Jesus. We have gone astray and we are now asking God to lead us back through our sorrow and change of heart to our calling and dignity. We are confident that our rising to new life will come in God’s time. But for the present, with hope we call on God’s mercy and grace to lead us back to wholeness and holiness.  I need you to accompany me and Pope Benedict and all the members of our Church on our way home.

After a moment of warm silence as the Bishop’s words sank into his hearers, the Choir recovered its voice and so did the congregation. Here was something worth singing for.

Alex Nelson – 6 May, 2010