Less than a week before Easter, a blanket of snow still covers a portion of our front lawn. As long as I keep myself oriented to the south, with its sunny back yard, my heart feels the lightness of spring.
My first inkling of spring, though, comes well before the snow melts with the appearance of a variety of hellebore orientalis, Easter Rose. Every year, my heart leaps up when I behold its stem poking through the leaf mulch. This pretty, yet humble flower with its droopy head brightens the late winter garden and thrills me with its promise of new life.
Holy Week inspires the same sense of newness within my spirit. This year, I feel it even more intensely because of the hopeful signs of renewal within the Catholic Church. While Pope Francis may or may not usher in a “Vatican Spring” of sweeping institutional reforms, the early signs shooting forth point towards renewal. Nowhere is this more evident than in his genuine concern for the poor.
The pope signalled his concern for the poor immediately, when he chose the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, a saint loved for his embrace of poverty, devotion to the poor, and respect for creation.
Francis really seems to take seriously the words of Jesus, “whatever you do to the least of my people, you do to me.” He framed this in his homily at the papal installation, saying that the pope must “embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”
This Thursday, Francis puts his words into action. He will celebrate Holy Thursday with young offenders in a youth detention center. Why is this significant?
The liturgy for Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, and includes the washing of the feet. The celebrant of the Mass (priest, bishop, cardinal or pope) kneels before twelve representatives from the community and washes their feet.
This ritual not only commemorates an act of Jesus, who washed the feet of his disciples the night before he died, it recalls the cleansing waters of baptism. The pouring of the water over the feet is a visible symbol of the outpouring of God’s grace in our lives. It is a ritual that calls the Church to renew its commitment to the gospel imperative for service, especially to those people Francis mentioned at his installation.
In choosing to celebrate with prisoners, Francis brings hope into the winter of the lives of those who are imprisoned, and he subtly throws out an example for the rest of us.
While Francis is giving many Roman Catholics reasons to hope that there will be change in the institutional Church, right now, he seems intent on orienting the Church to the gospel of service. Perhaps this gentle approach, which is like the touch of the sun coaxing the Easter Rose out of its winter sleep, will effectively awaken hearts and create a springtime of renewal.