On this sacred night—when we recall the first Mass and the institution of the Eucharist—we recall, too, the institution of the priesthood.
In particular, we reflect this evening on humble service—what it means to “wash the feet” of another.
I want to tell you tonight about one man who did that beautifully. His name was Stanley Rother.
Stanley was born to a farm family in Okarche, Oklahoma in 1935. After he graduated high school, he heard the call to become a priest, so he went to seminary in Texas. Life on the farm hadn’t prepared him for life in the seminary, and he had a difficult time. Mastering theology and learning Latin were not quite the same as plowing fields or mending fences. He failed several courses. Studying became a struggle. After a few years, his superiors urged him to quit. They didn’t think he was cut out for the priesthood. But he persisted—and eventually he was ordained.
A few years later, he answered another call, and he went to Guatemala to serve as a missionary. There, his upbringing on a farm served him well.
Father Stanley said Mass—and built a school.
He heard confessions—and repaired trucks.
He anointed the sick and dying—and worked the fields.
The people loved him. Children adored him. Since there’s no Mayan Indian equivalent for “Stanley,” they called him by his baptismal name, Francis. To them, he was Padre Francesco—or in the local tribal language, Padre A’plas.
But in the 1970s, Guatemala became embroiled in a brutal civil war. Priests and religious were targeted. Some were kidnapped or “disappeared.” For a time, Father Stanley left the country, and went back to Oklahoma. But in 1981, he wanted to return to the people he loved, to spend Holy Week with them—to celebrate what we are celebrating tonight. And so he did. He stayed for several months after, despite the risks and threats. He would not abandon the people who had come to depend on him.
As he wrote to his family, “A shepherd doesn’t run at the first sign of danger.”
But on July 28, 1981, danger entered his life. Three men broke into his rectory. They intended to kidnap him, to make him among “the disappeared.” He fought back, but would not call for help, because he didn’t want to put anyone else in danger. After a few moments of struggle, he was shot twice in the head. Stanley Rother was 46 years old. He was one of 10 priests murdered that year in Guatemala.
A few days later, his body was returned to Oklahoma for burial.
His heart was buried close to the people he loved, at his parish church in Guatemala.
Last December, 35 years after Father Stanley Rother’s murder, Pope Francis declared him officially a martyr of the faith—the first martyr born in the United States. In September, he will be beatified.
Tonight, I suggest, attention must be paid.
Here was a man who washed the feet of others. We need to remember great priests like Father Stanley Rother—ordinary figures of extraordinary commitment and generosity and faith. There are so many others who go unrecognized. I don’t want this night to pass without acknowledging the gift of the priesthood—and the tremendous gift of priests. Men who walk with us, struggle with us, sacrifice for us, live with us, listen to us.
Men who bring Christ to us.
Men like those who are in this sanctuary tonight.
It is often said: without priests, there is no Eucharist. But that only tells part of the story.
Looking out at this church tonight, I’d wager virtually every one of us is here, in some way, because of a priest—someone who baptized us, confirmed us, gave us First Communion.
Maybe a priest anointed you before surgery, or held the hand of your mother as she lay dying, or heard your confession and offered you mercy at a moment when you didn’t think mercy was possible.
Maybe he picked you up when you fell, or gave you direction when you were lost, or just listened when no one else would.
The fact is: Priests show us every day what it means to wash the feet of another.
Because that is what Christ did. The great High Priest showed us how it is done. And we are to do it as he did.
Indeed, tonight, we remember this more vividly than ever:
Our faith was begun by a savior who got down on his knees for us.
This has been our model.
As a result, this has been our story, across 20 centuries. We are people who wash one another’s feet—offering compassion, charity, tenderness and love.
We do it for the greater glory of God—following the example of his son.
This is our way.
We have done it in hospitals, in leper colonies, in prisons.
We have done it in deserts and in jungles and in palaces.
We Christians today wash the feet of those who have traveled the dusty roads of life, all who carry the dirt and grime of the journey.
We do it among our suffering brothers and sisters in India and China and Ukraine.
We do it tonight among those who grieve in Syria and Egypt.
We care for the forgotten, we accept those who are scorned, we give dignity to those on the margins.
We do it because we follow a savior who got down on his knees for us—and then stood up and died for us.
I’m reminded of a Dominican sister in Iraq during the Gulf War in 2003. She and her sisters lived in a convent in Baghdad that was relatively secure. But as the bombs fell, their Muslim neighbors were terrified. So the sisters opened their convent to them, gave them shelter, and even gave them a separate room to say their daily prayers.
Talking about it later, the sister offered a simple explanation. “We don’t do this because they’re Catholic,” she said. “We do it because we are.”
We are. This is our way.
This Gospel challenges us to look within—and to look beyond.
Who are those in our lives whose feet we should wash?
How do we express the love of Christ to those in need?
Remember the heroism and selflessness of Father Stanley Rother, Padre A’plas.
Remember, as the bishop of Oklahoma City said recently: holy men and women can come from ordinary places—Okarche, Oklahoma or Rego Park, Queens.
Remember all those priests who have given up so much so that they can give us Christ. They continue to show us the way.
Finally, as we begin this sacred Triduum, remember what Christ showed us: how we are called to live—and how we are called to love.
We are to wash one another’s feet.
“I have given you a model to follow…as I have done for you, you should also do.”