Fifth Sermon Lent 2022

Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M.Cap.


Our meditation today starts with a question: Why, in the account of the Last Supper, John does not speak of the institution of the Eucharist, but speaks instead of the washing of the feet? And this after he had dedicated an entire chapter of his Gospel to preparing the disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood!

The underlying reason is that in everything concerning Easter and the Eucharist, John wants to emphasize the event more than the sacrament, that is, more the meaning than its sign. For him, the new Passover does not begin so much in the Upper Room, when the rite that must commemorate it is instituted (we know that John’s Last Supper is not an “Easter supper); rather it begins on the cross when the fact that it is to be commemorated is fulfilled. It is at that moment that the passage from the old Passover to the new one takes place. On the cross “they did not break his legs”, to fulfill what was prescribed for the paschal lamb in Exodus, “not a bone of it will be broken.” (Jn 19: 33-36; Ex 12:46).


The meaning of the washing of the feet

It is important to understand the meaning John attaches to the washing of the feet. The recent apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium mentions it in the Preamble, as the very icon of service that must characterize all the work of the Roma Curia. It helps us to understand how a Eucharist can be transferred into life and thus we “imitate in life what we celebrate on the altar”. We are facing one of those episodes (another is the episode of the piercing of the side), in which the evangelist makes it clear that there is a mystery underneath that goes beyond the contingent fact that could, in itself, seem negligible.

Jesus says, “I have given you the example”. What did he give us the example of? How should the brothers’ feet be physically washed every time we sit at the table? Certainly not only this! The answer is in the Gospel: “Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10: 44-45).

In the Gospel of Luke, precisely in the context of the Last Supper, there is a word of Jesus that seems to have been pronounced at the end of the washing of the feet: “Who is greater, who is at the table or who serves? Isn’t he the one who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as one who serves “(Lk 22:27). According to the evangelist, Jesus said these words because a discussion had arisen among the disciples about whom of them could be considered the greatest (cf. Lk 22:24). Perhaps it was precisely this circumstance that inspired Jesus to do the washing of the feet, as a kind of parable in action. While the disciples are all busy discussing animatedly among themselves, he silently gets up from the table, looks for a basin of water and a towel, then goes back and kneels before Peter to wash his feet, understandably throwing him into a great confusion: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” (Jn 13, 6).

In the washing of the feet, Jesus wanted to summarize the whole meaning of his life, so that it would remain well impressed in the memory of the disciples: “What I am doing now you do not understand, but you will understand after “(Jn 13: 7). That gesture tells us that the whole life of Jesus, from beginning to end, was a washing of feet, which is, serving humanity.

Before the incarnation, there is the pre-existence of Christ, after the incarnation the pro-existence of Christ, that is, an existence lived in favor of others. Jesus gave us the example of a life spent for others, a life made “bread broken for the world”. With the words: “Do you too as I did”, Jesus therefore institutes the diakonía, that is, service, elevating it to a fundamental law, or, better, to a lifestyle and model of all relationships in the Church. As if he were saying, also about the washing of the feet, what he said in instituting the Eucharist: “Do this in memory of me!”.

A short personal remark before going on. An ancient Father, the blessed Isaac of Nineveh, gave this advice to those who are forced, by duty, to talk about spiritual things, which they have not yet reached with life: “Speak about it – he said – as one who belongs to the class of disciples and not with authority, after humbling your soul and making yourself smaller than any of your listeners”.  This, venerable fathers, brothers and sisters, is the spirit with which I dare to speak of service to you who live it day by day.

I remember the observation that the prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, Cardinal Franjo Šeper, once made to us members of the International Theological Commission: “You theologians – he said smiling – have not finished writing something that you immediately put your name and surname on it. We in the Curia must do everything anonymously ”. This comes closer to  the nature of evangelical service and it is a reason for me to admire and be grateful to the many anonymous servants of the Church who work in the Roman Curia, in the Episcopal Curias and in the Nunciatures.

But back to our theme. The doctrine of charisms is entirely oriented to service; service appears as the soul and purpose of every charism. Saint Paul affirms that every “particular manifestation of the Spirit” is given “for the common good” (cf. 1 Cor 12: 7) and that the charisms are bestowed “to make the brothers suitable to perform the service” (diakonía) (Eph 4, 12). Even the apostle Peter, recommending hospitality, writes: “Each one lives according to the grace (chárisma) received, putting it at the service (diakonía) of others” (1 Pt 4, 10). The two things – charisma and ministry, charisma and service – always appear vitally connected to each other. The Church is charismatic to serve!


The spirit of service

We must closely examine the significance of “service if it is not to remain just a mere word in our lives. In itself, service is not a virtue; in no list of virtues or fruits of the Holy Spirit, as the New Testament defines them (Gal 5:22), do we find the word diakonia, service. Actually, mention is made of a service to sin (cf. Rom 6:16) or to idols (cf. 1 Cor 6:9) which is, undoubtedly, not good. Service is neutral in itself: it indicates a way of living or a way of relating to others in one’s work; being at the dependence of others. It can even be negative if done under constraint (slavery), or simply out of interest. 

Service is much discussed today: everyone is in service: a shopkeeper serves his customers; anyone who works is said to be in service. Evidently the gospel speaks of a very different kind of service, even if it doesn’t necessarily exclude or disqualify service in worldly terms. The difference lies in the reason for the service and in the inner attitude with which it is carried out. 

Let us read once more the account of the washing of the feet to see with what spirit Jesus did it and what prompted him to do it: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Service is not a virtue but it springs from virtue, especially from charity; actually it is the greatest expression of the new commandment. Service is a manifestation of the agape, or of a love that “does not insist on its own interests” (cf. 1 Cor 13:5), but on that of others; it does not consist in self-seeking but in giving. It is, all told, participating in and imitating God’s way of acting who, because he is “Good, all Good and the supreme Good,” cannot but love and help us freely and disinterestedly. 

This is why evangelical service, unlike that of the world, is not recommended to those who are inferior, to the needy and the poor but to those who have much, those in high places, the rich. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required where service is concerned (cf. Luke 12:48). That’s why Jesus says that in his Church, the leader must become one who serves (Luke 22:26) and whoever is first must become the slave of all (Mark 10:44).  My professor of New Testament in Fribourg, Ceslas Spicq,  used to say that the washing of the feet  is “the sacrament of Christian authority”.

Besides gratuity, service is the expression of another aspect of divine agape: humility. The words Jesus said, “You also ought to wash one another’s feet,” mean: you must offer one another the service of humble charity. Charity and humility together form evangelical service. Jesus once said: “Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart” (Matt 11:29). What had Jesus done to call himself “humble”? Had he, perhaps, thought lowly of himself or spoken unassumingly about himself? He had done quite the opposite! During the actual washing of the feet he proclaimed himself “Teacher and Lord” (cf. John 13:13). 

What had he done, therefore, to call himself “humble”? He humbled himself; he came down from heaven to serve! And from the moment of the incarnation he continued to come down to the point of kneeling down to wash his apostles’ feet. How the angels must have shuddered to see the Son of God humble himself so, he upon whom they do not even dare to look (cf. 1 Pet 1:12). The Creator kneeling before his creatures! “Proud ashes, blush with shame. God humbles himself and you exalt yourself!” St. Bernard used to say to himself.[1]Bernard of Clairvaux, Laudes to the Virgin, I,8. Seen like this — as humbling oneself to serve — humility is indeed a regal way of being like God and of imitating the Eucharist in our lives. 


Discernment of spirits

The fruit of this meditation should be a courageous examination of our lives (our habits, position, schedule, distribution and use of our time) to see if it is really a service and if love and humility are part of it. The important thing to know is whether we are serving our brothers and sisters or whether, instead, they are serving our purposes. We make others serve our purpose or we take advantage of them, perhaps even when we are doing our utmost for them, if we are not disinterested and are, in some way, seeking approval, applause or the satisfaction of having a clear conscience, of being the benefactor. The gospel requirements are extremely radical on this point: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt 6:3). Everything we do “to be noticed by others” is lost. “Christ did not please himself!” (Rom 15:3): this is the rule of service.

To have a “discernment of spirits” or of our intentions in doing service, we should be aware of what we do willingly and what we do our best to shirk. We should see if our heart is ready to abandon a noble, prestigious service, if required, for a humble unappreciated one. The surest service we can give is that which is hidden from the eyes of all except the Father’s, who sees into our secret hearts. Jesus raised the washing of feet, one of the most humble acts of his time as it was usually done by slaves, to a symbol of service. St. Paul warns us: “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly” (Rom 12:16).

The opposite to a spirit of service is the wish to domineer, the habit to enforce our wills, our points of view and ways, on others. In a word, authoritarianism. Often a person of tyrannical disposition doesn’t even realize the suffering he causes and is almost amazed at how little his “concern” and efforts are appreciated. He even becomes the victim. Jesus told his apostles to be like “lambs among wolves,” but such a person is like a wolf among lambs. Much of the suffering that families and communities are often subjected to is due to the presence of an authoritarian and despotic person who tramples on others with nailed boots, as it were, and under the pretext of “serving” others, actually takes advantage of them.

This “someone” might possibly well be us! If we have the slightest doubt about this, we should sincerely consult those we live with and give them the opportunity to express themselves frankly. If it results that our way of behaving makes life difficult for someone, we should humbly accept the fact and reflect on our service.

In another way, being too attached to our habits and comfort also goes against the spirit of service — a spirit of laxness, as it were. It is not possible to seriously serve others if we are constantly intent on pleasing ourselves, making an idol out of our rest, our free time, our schedule. The rule of service is always the same: “Christ did not please himself.”

We have seen that service is the virtue of those in charge. Jesus left it as a treasure to the pastors of his Church. We have seen that all the charisms are given for the purpose of service, but particularly the charism of “pastors and teachers” (cf. Eph 4:11), the charism of authority. The Church is “charismatic” to serve and it is also “ministerial” to serve!


Service of the Spirit

If, for all Christians, to serve means “living no longer for themselves” (cf. 2 Cor 5:15), for pastors it means: “not feeding themselves”: “Ho, shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezek 34:2). Nothing appears more natural and right to people than that whoever is lord (dominus) should “dominate,” act, as it were, as lord. But this is not the way” for the disciples of Jesus; whoever is lord must serve. “Not that we lord it over your faith,” writes St. Paul, “we work with you for your joy” (2 Cor 1:24). 

The Apostle Peter recommends the same thing to pastors: “Do not dominate over those in your charge but be an example to the flock” (cf. 1 Pet 5:3). It is not easy in pastoral ministry to avoid the mentality of being a lord of the faith, which became part of the concept of authority very early on. In one of the most ancient documents on episcopal authority (the Syriac Didascalia), we find the idea that a bishop is like a monarch, in whose Church nothing can be undertaken without his consent.

Where pastors are concerned and in so far as they are pastors, this point is often the decisive factor in conversion. How strong and sad the words Jesus uttered after the washing of the feet sound: “I, your Lord and Master . . . !” “Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:6), and that is to say, he wasn’t afraid of compromising his divine dignity, of fostering people s disrespect by disregarding his own privileges and appearing as one among us. Jesus led a simple life; simplicity has always been the beginning and the sign of a genuine return to the gospel. We must imitate God’s way of acting. Nothing, Tertullian wrote, better portrays God’s way of acting so much as the contrast between the simplicity of the ways and means with which he works and the magnificence of the spiritual results obtained. [2]Tertullian, On the Baptism, 1.

The world needs a great display to act and impress, but God doesn’t. There was a time when the dignity of bishops was seen in insignia, titles, castles, armies. They were, so to speak, prince-bishops, and sometimes much more prince than bishop. Today seems like a golden time for the Church in comparison. I knew a bishop years ago who found it natural to pass a few hours in an old people’s home, helping them to dress and eat; he took the washing of feet literally. Personally, I have received wonderful examples of simplicity in my life from prelates. 

It is necessary, however, to maintain a sense of evangelic freedom on this point too. Simplicity necessitates that we do not place ourselves above others but neither should we obstinately always place ourselves beneath them to somehow keep our distance, but that, in the things of ordinary routine we accept to be like others. Manzoni makes a sharp observation when he says there are those who have all the humility necessary when it comes to placing themselves beneath others but not when it is a question of being their equals.[3]A. Manzoni, The Betrothed, chap. 38. At times, the best service is not in serving but in accepting to be served, like Jesus who, at the right moment, knew how to sit at table and let another wash his feet (cf. Luke 7:38) and who willingly accepted the provisions made for him on his journeys by the generous and loving women (Luke 8:2-3).

Where pastoral service, or pastors, are concerned we must not forget that service to the brethren, no matter how important and holy, is not the first or essential thing; service to God comes first. Jesus is first and foremost the “Servant of God and then the servant of humanity. He even reminds his parents of this when he says: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). He never hesitated to delude the crowds that had gathered to hear him and be healed of infirmities when he unexpectedly withdrew to the wilderness to pray (cf. Luke 5:16). 

Today, even evangelical service is endangered by the risk of secularization. It can all too easily be taken for granted that all service to humanity is God’s service. St. Paul speaks of a service of the Spirit (diakonia Pneumatos) (2 Cor 3:8), to which the ministers of the New Testament are destined. In pastors, the spirit of service must be expressed in service of the Spirit!

Those, like priests, who are called by vocation to a “spiritual” service, do not serve their brethren by doing all sorts of things for them and then neglecting the only thing the brethren rightfully expect from them and which only they can render. It is written that a priest “is appointed to act on behalf of people in relation to God” (Heb 5:1). When this problem arose for the first time in the Church, Peter solved it like this: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. . . . We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:2-4).

 In fact, there are pastors who have taken up serving tables again. They busy themselves with all sorts of problems, whether they be problems of money, administration or even agriculture, that exist in their communities (even when these could quite easily be seen to by others), and they neglect their real ministry, which cannot be delegated. The ministry of the Word requires hours of reading, study and prayer. 

Immediately after explaining to the apostles the meaning of the washing of the feet, Jesus said to them: “Knowing these things you will be blessed if you do them” (Jn 13:17). We too will be blessed, if we are not satisfied with knowing these things – namely that the Eucharist pushes us to service and sharing -, but if we put them into practice, possibly starting today. The Eucharist is not only a mystery to be consecrated, received and adored, but also a mystery to be imitated.

Before concluding, however, we must recall a truth that we have emphasized in all our reflections on the Eucharist: namely the action of the Holy Spirit! Let’s be careful not to reduce the gift to duty! We have not only received the command to wash the feet and serve our brothers and sisters: we have received the grace of being able to do so. Service is a charisma and like all charisms it is “a particular manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”, says St. Paul (1 Cor 12: 7); “Each one must live according to the gift (charisma!) received, putting it at the service of others”, adds St. Peter (1 Pt 4:10). The gift precedes duty and makes its fulfillment possible. This is “the good news” – the Gospel – of which the Eucharist is the consoling daily memory.

Holy Father, venerable fathers, brothers and sisters, thank you for your patient listening, and best wishes for a blessed Holy Week and a Happy Easter! 




1 Bernard of Clairvaux, Laudes to the Virgin, I,8.
2 Tertullian, On the Baptism, 1.
3 A. Manzoni, The Betrothed, chap. 38.
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