PILGRIMAGE: El Bosque, Bolivia—Washing Feet by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

El Bosque, Bolivia—Washing Feet by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

Night is falling fast on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, Bolivia.  Our taxi turns off the busy main road and starts to bounce past patches of semitropical woods where cinder block shacks huddle together in groups as if looking for moral support.  In the front seat, next to the driver, sits Gertulio, a Brazilian catechist.  I’m in the back with a seminarian named Carlos who has volunteered to come out here and help me celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass.  I’ve never been the chief celebrant on Holy Thursday – but at least I have said Mass in Spanish three times before.

We jolt to a stop at the edge of a wide, dark field.  Mass kit in hand, I climb out of the cab and tramp through the high grass, the taxi’s headlights throwing long eerie shadows in front of me.  Forty yards ahead, the mission chapel of El Bosque is aglow with fluorescent lights.  Sister Ana and Sister Teresa, two Bolivian sisters who live and work in El Bosque, greet us at the wide doorway.  I can see over their shoulders into the single large room with a bare concrete floor.  A portable altar and long wooden benches have been set up for Mass, and about two dozen people are already waiting patiently for the service to start.  A couple of friendly dogs wander among the benches, but no one pays any attention to them.  Carlos starts to unpack the Mass articles while I go sit on a bench in a far corner to hear confessions.

After twenty minutes the benches are full, and I walk over to say, hi, to the music ministers – several teenagers using an electric keyboard, a drum, and a few guitars.  Then I vest for Mass.

The Holy Thursday Eucharist begins with loud, heartfelt, joyful singing.  Soon it’s time for me to read the gospel.  Today’s passage is from the thirteenth chapter of Saint John, in which Jesus washes the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, telling them, “If I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”  Later in the Mass I will perform the Holy Thursday rite of foot-washing, in which the presiding priest dramatizes the gospel story of Jesus’s action at the Last Supper by washing the feet of twelve people from the congregation who represent the apostles.

The earliest Christians used foot-washing as a ritual for welcoming guests into their homes, and included it in the first baptismal rite.  Caesarius of Arles, a sixth-century bishop, said in a Holy Thursday sermon how sad and disappointed he was to see Christians abandoning the custom of washing one another’s feet.

I finish reading the gospel and sit down as Sister Ana begins a lovely reflection on the meaning of Holy Thursday and Jesus’s message of love.

At about the same time that Bishop Caesarius was lamenting the death of the Christian custom of foot-washing, Saint Benedict was preserving it for future generations in his Rule.  In Chapter 35 he calls for the weekly table servers to wash the feet of all the monks, and in Chapter 53 he orders the abbot and the brethren to wash the feet of the monastery’s guests.  Thus the ritual of foot-washing would be kept alive for several centuries by the monks.

During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines continued washing each other’s feet, but not those of their guests.  The latter custom was replaced by a new one – the washing of the feet of poor people.  Under the influence of this example, Christian kings and nobles began performing this ritual gesture toward the poor once a year.  Some medieval abbeys celebrated Holy Thursday with as many as three different foot-washing rites.

Sister Ana has finished her Biblical reflection.  Long wooden benches are set out in a straight line in front of the altar, and the people who have been designated begin coming up to have the priest wash their feet.  I remove my white chasuble, and dressed simply in my long white alb and stole, walk over to the first man on the bench, a wiry old campesino.  I kneel down and wash his feet.  It’s not as strange a feeling as I thought it would be – maybe it’s in my Benedictine blood?  I finish drying his feet and stand up to move to the next person.

When I glance down the line of twelve people, I blink in surprise.  At the other end of the row, Gertulio is on his knees washing someone’s feet, and in the center Sister Teresa is washing someone else’s.  “What,” I ask myself, “are these two people up to?”  In a second, though, I understand what’s happening.  For the past few years there has been no priest here on Holy Thursday, and the catechist and the sisters, the central figures in this little faith community, have run the service themselves, including in it the foot-washing ritual.  They and their tiny community found it so meaningful and so beautiful that the two of them just naturally continued the tradition this year.

With three of us involved, the ceremony goes quickly, and soon I’m rinsing my hands and putting on my white chasuble again to continue the rest of the Mass.  While a young woman leads the long list of petitions in the “General Intercessions,” I notice my two fellow foot-washers in the front row, and I start to think about what the three of us have just done.

When I, the visiting priest, washed the feet of some people, I was “playing Christ” in a ritualized liturgical drama.  But Sister Teresa and Gertulio were, it seems to me, doing something else: they were simply obeying Jesus’s command, “If I have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s.”  Their ritual gesture of service this evening is just a pale symbol of what they in fact do for people all the time.  Gertulio gives himself entirely to evangelizing the poor and helping them solve all sorts of everyday problems.  Sister Teresa spends long days distributing medicine at her little dispensary, working with children, comforting the dying, consoling the sorrowful, and bringing the Good News to the poor.  These two give their lives for their sisters and brothers by obeying Jesus’s “new command” to “love one another just as I have loved you.”

What if I had the vision to see each person in my life as someone whose feet I’m supposed to wash?  What if my first response at the approach of a student, a brother monk, or a parishioner were always the desire to be of service the way Jesus was?

I’m called back with a jolt as Carlos puts the microphone in front of me.  He holds up the Spanish text and I begin to read the oration at the end of the petitions.  When the congregation responds, “Amen,” and we sit down again, I start to look out at all the saints on the benches.  Some of them are barefoot, some in shower clogs.  Many are wearing T-shirts and cheap cotton shorts.  Their clothes tells a tale of poverty.  But their faces say something else.  Thanks to Gertulio and Sisters Teresa and Ana, these poor people have received a priceless gift: they know that they are loved by God, a God who kneels to serve them – a God who washes their feet.


Jesus’s journey is about to culminate in a final act of love, when he lays down his life for his friends.  John’s gospel account of the Last Supper makes no mention of bread or wine or the instituting of the Eucharist; in its place the gospel writer tells the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  The message is clear: sacramental Communion is meaningless without the active life of loving service that it represents.

Has your Lenten journey made you a little more sensitive to each person around you as someone who “needs his or her feet washed?”  Think of someone you know who might be especially in need of your loving service.


Sacred Scripture (John 13:3-5, 12-15)

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel.  Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded.  When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, and he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”


Rule of Benedict

The abbot shall pour water on the hands of the guests, and the abbot with the entire community shall wash their feet, (Chapter 53, “The Reception of Guests,” vv. 12-13).

Both the one who is ending his service [in the kitchen] and the one who is about to begin are to wash the feet of everyone, (Chapter 35, “Kitchen Servers for the Week,” v. 9).

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