Pope Francis washes the foot of a prisoner during the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper at Rome’s Casal del Marmo prison for minors March 28. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)
By Bishop John Wester
One of the numerous surprising moments of Pope Francis’ young pontificate was the announcement that on Holy Thursday, March 28, he would celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at Rome’s Casa Del Marmo Youth Detention Centre. There, in an unforgettable moment, he washed the feet of 12 young inmates. In anticipation of the pope’s visit, one of them said, “At last I shall get to meet someone who says he is my father!”
This observation captures the power of the pope’s gesture. “True power is service,” Pope Francis said in his inaugural homily and later on Twitter. And the power of this particular act of service is that it cast a light where there was darkness, a light that allowed a young person the world had forgotten to experience a father’s love for the first time.
In Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (Light of Faith), published July 5, the pope says that faith is a light that comes directly from an encounter with God. “The light of faith is unique,” the pope writes, “since it is capable of illuminating every aspect of human existence.”
This includes the past and all the people who have walked the path of faith before us, but also the promises for the future that God makes and keeps because he is faithful. And of course it includes Jesus, the embodiment of God’s fulfilled promises.
“Faith does not merely gaze at Jesus, but sees things as Jesus himself sees them, with his own eyes,” Pope Francis writes. Christ’s way of seeing the world “enables us to grasp reality’s deepest meaning” and constantly guides us toward God. It is through this experience of Christ that our lives become “radically open to a love that precedes us, and love that transforms us from within, acting in us and through us in radical, often surprising ways.”
It’s not a stretch to think that Pope Francis washed the feet of the young inmates because he sees the world with the radical vision of Jesus, who sees that God loves these inmates as much as he love any other person. It also reflects the call of Jesus to serve those at the margins.
Like a light shining forth, faith makes a person go forth into the world. A person of faith must be ready “to come out of himself and find the God of perpetual surprises,” Pope Francis writes. Even the Ten Commandments, he writes, aren’t about rule keeping so much as “concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego in order to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others.”
Those who believe in the light of faith, he says, come to see themselves as members of a body, in an essential relationship with others. This relationship goes beyond powerful symbolic gestures like washing feet and applies the same love to big-picture issues like just economic systems, care for creation and forgiving one another. But little gestures are vital, because they allow the light of faith to spread, even reaching places it hasn’t been for a long time or maybe has never been before.
Whether it’s his Holy Thursday Mass in prison or the July 8 Mass for migrants on Lamedusa Island, how many people have responded to the gestures of Pope Francis with surprise, followed by an enthusiasm for faith and even an openness to Christ and his Church that wasn’t there before? What a perfect example for the Church during the Year of Faith. The light of faith is powerful enough to help the whole world to see like Jesus.
Bishop Wester is bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City and chairman of the Communications Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.