Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

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Thoughts on the Footwashing Decree

January 21st, 2016, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

Foot WashingThis morning, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a decree with authority from Pope Francis to amend the liturgy for the Holy Thursday liturgy. The rite for Mass on that day contains an option for the “washing of feet.” Until this morning, it was required that only males be chosen as the entire rite was meant to be a presentation of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles at the Last Supper which is described in the gospel read on that night. With the new decree, not only can women have their feet washed, but the explanations indicate a preference for creating a group representing a cross-section of the parish.

As sometimes happens, I go into some discussions regarding this on Facebook. Without much editing, I am copying some of my comments from that forum to this site so as to make them more accessible.

Things began with the following comment from a priest:

For me, this action has always been about the priest exercising his ministry as servant, particularly to the people to whom he has been entrusted, rather than a re-enactment of the Last Supper. I always hated the implication that the priest is only there to serve the men.

My replies to various postings follow:

No one at Mass on Holy Thursday actually needs their feet washed. The priest isn’t actually serving anyone. It’s symbolic. The question is, “What does it symbolize?” The modern addition of a foot washing ceremony to the Holy Thursday liturgy has created something completely of it’s own making whose meaning is only found in what the community thinks it means.

As such, we now have a ceremony that has come to symbolize the willingness of the priest to serve his people. Such an understanding almost necessitates that women’s feet be washed. But we also have to see that this has almost nothing to do with what was intended by adding this to the liturgy in the first place. I think what is more likely is that this ceremony will in time disappear from the Holy Thursday liturgy. It was an innovation when it was added in 1950’s and the very fact that we don’t even know what it means would indicate that its staying power is probably limited.

In the end, priests that were already disobeying the law will continue to wash women’s feet as they always have. Priests who followed the law probably did so because they also understood what the whole thing was supposed to be about in the first place. They will likely not take the option to wash women’s feet and will continue with only men’s feet. Over time, more and more will take the option of not doing it at all. As a liturgical rite, I think it’s a product of a time that is quickly fading.

Later on:

My personal feeling is that the footwashing is becoming too much like an event or show to be watched rather than a sacred action intended to be prayed over. The actions of the liturgy are ritual symbolic actions, not mere spectacle. So again, the question is “What does the footwashing symbolize?”

As I said, the answer has come to be that it symbolizes the desire of the priest to serve his people after the example provided by Jesus. Consider though that a symbol represents something; it stands in for something not evident or present so as to make it present through use of the symbol. We don’t really need to “symbolize” the desire of a priest to serve his people on Holy Thursday when he is in fact at that very moment serving them in concrete reality. Celebrating the Eucharist and feeding his flock with the Bread of Life is the greatest service that a priest could ever provide for his people. No symbol of this is necessary when the reality is right there.

If the footwashing is meant to visibly present what is read in the Gospel, namely Jesus washing the feet of the 12 apostles, then symbolism is necessary as neither Jesus nor the twelve apostles are present in physical reality. They must be symbolized. Neither the priest, nor his desire to serve need to be symbolized. They are both there in concrete reality.

And finally:

On a pragmatic level, consider the new potential for conflict created for the average parish priest. Under the old law, you picked 12 men. There wasn’t too much arguing about why people were chosen. They were chosen to represent the apostles, nothing more. The great criteria that made you worthy of being chosen was that you were born male.

With the old law, people were chosen to represent an apostle. In the new law, people are to be chosen as an honor for some function they perform in the parish or to represent an important group in the parish. The desire seems to be to create a “cross-section” of the parish.

Immediately we have questions such as, “Why was he/she chosen and not me or this other person?” “Why was the sandwich making ministry honored with a footwashing spot but not the blanket making ministry?” “Why did the Legion of Mary have a representative foot to be washed, but not the Daughters of Isabella?”

Even if all goes well without any bickering or hard feelings, there is still a major shift with the new law. Under the old law, the whole point was to use a visible symbol, 12 men, to help take our thoughts to the Upper Room. They served as an aide to meditation in which we were perhaps more easily supposed to picture Jesus at the Last Supper washing the feet of his apostles. The footwashing served as a sort of living stained glass window. Under the new law, the action in front of us not only doesn’t as easily remind us of the Upper Room, it deliberately distracts our attention from the transcendent to focus on the here and now.

As a symbol points to a reality beyond itself, one could say that the best symbol is one in which the symbol itself falls to the background as the reality signified becomes more and more present. In the use of 12 men for the rite, the ideal would be that we would totally lose sight of who was having their feet washed and who was doing it. We would be drawn in meditation beyond what was in front of us to think only of Jesus and the apostles in the Upper Room. Naturally, a desire to serve after the example of our Lord would flow from such meditation.

The innovation of creating a representative group of the parish for the priest to minister to as some act of service no longer functions as an effective sign of what was originally intended. Rather than the people themselves fading into the background in service of some transcendent reality, now the choice of the people becomes an integral part of the rite. We are no longer to see Jesus washing feet; we are meant to focus all the more on the person of the priest and precisely who’s foot is being washed. It is “my” pastor washing “my” feet or some other representative foot.

The decree issued today, as well as the original one of Pius XII in the 1950’s indicate that it is important for priests to explain the meaning of the footwashing rite to the faithful. I would simply note that the new legislation lends itself to a meaning that is very different from what was originally intended. Obviously, Pope Francis prefers this meaning. The footwashing is now to be a small token of service in the here and now. If it symbolizes anything, it symbolizes not Jesus and the apostles, but a relationship between the priest and the one having his or her foot washed. Rather than the transcendent, the here and now is the focus.

My own personal opinion is that there is far too much focus in the celebration of the Mass these days on the relationship between the priest and the people assembled. I rather prefer that the priest’s own personality fade into the background during Mass so that the people may more easily see him as standing in the person of Christ. The priest is to be, at least in part, a symbol at Mass that points people to Jesus. As I said above, the best symbols fade to the background in favor of what they signify. Like John the Baptist, we priests should desire to decrease that Jesus may increase. In my mind, the old law for the footwashing, requiring men representing the apostles and the priest representing Jesus, had better potential to accomplish this; the new rite, not so much.

I should be clear that the above comments only regard the footwashing rite as it has been introduced into the liturgy. The idea of a ritual of symbolic service of footwashing outside the context of the Eucharist is an entirely different matter. There may well be a place for a free use of the gesture of footwashing outside the celebration of Mass. Time will tell. Regardless, one thing that I am very grateful for is that the legal matter is finally settled. It might not be prudent, but is certainly no longer illegal to wash women’s feet on Holy Thursday. At the very least, we no longer have to debate this every Holy Week, and for that I am most grateful.

Homily 308 – Half Empty Water Jars – 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 17th, 2016, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

Stone Water Jar Found at CanaToday’s gospel recounts the story of the wedding at Cana where Jesus famously turns water into wine. St. John tells us that there were six stone water jars, each holding twenty to thirty gallons. These are not small jars! In fact they weren’t meant for drinking, but contained large quantities of water for ceremonial washings. In listening to this story, naturally focus on the miracle of the wine. However, in today’s homily, I would like to focus more on the water.

Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” and Jesus tells them to bring him about 180 gallons of water…now. Maybe this meant going to a well, or even a stream. Whatever the source of water, it could not have been easy to produce so much water on a moment’s notice. Yet, St. John gives us another seemingly insignificant detail that turns out to be of great importance. He tells us not only that the servants filled the jars, but “they filled them to the brim.”

I know I would have been tempted to maybe “sort of” fill the jars. After a dozen or so trips to get more water, I think maybe two thirds full or even half full would have seemed like plenty to me. But these servants don’t do that. They fill the jars “to the brim.” Now we see the importance. The servants didn’t know that Jesus was about the make the greatest wine the world has ever known. Imagine if that had only filled the jars half way. Jesus still works his miracle, but there is less than there could have been. Perhaps there would have even been regret on the part of the servants that they had only filled the jars half way.

The servants in the gospel have no regrets. They did everything Jesus told them just as Mary commanded, and they gave it their best. Sometimes God asks things of us that we don’t understand right now, that seem tedious or burdensome, like bring bucket after bucket of water not knowing what it’s all about. It’s not a coincidence that the miracle in today’s gospel takes place at a wedding. God is telling us the kind of relationship he wants with us. He wants to marry us! If he asks us something, something we might not understand, it’s because he loves us and wants us to be happy.

The question then is whether we trust this relationship God is offering us. When he asks us to do something, maybe something hard, maybe just repeated little things that seem pointless, how to we respond? The truth is that God is working a miracle right now with the story of our lives. Just as the reason for all the trips to the well was eventually made plain to the servants in the gospel, so too the reason for everything God asks us will eventually be made plain. The question is, will we fill our jars to the brim, or will we one day look back with regret, knowing that we gave God only half empty water jars.

Homily 307 – Lessons from the Magi – Epiphany

January 3rd, 2016, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

Adoration of the Magi

Epiphany is often seen as the completion of the Christmas story. The three kings finally arrive in Bethlehem and our Christmas manger scene is now complete with all the figures in place. While this does provide a nice sentimental bookend to the season, in today’s homily I explore five ways in which the message of the magi remains relevant for us today.

1) God will in fact speak to us and give us directions. However, as was the case with the magi, we should not expect huge unavoidable signs. Rather, we should expect God to give us subtle directions, like the astronomical events that that guided the magi.

2) We should expect that, whatever path God asks us to take, it is going to be difficult. The magi had a rough time getting across the wilderness to Jerusalem. Often times the more difficult path is the path God asks us to follow.

3) Be suspicious of following the crowd. In God’s way, the crowd is often wrong and the truth is found by only a small few. The magi were a small group, maybe just three. Still, they recognized the birth of the Messiah while “all Jerusalem” missed it. With God, the minority is often the right place to be.

4) When the magi finally encounter Jesus, the fall down and worship him. They give him their treasures, the very best they have. We are called to do likewise. At every Mass were are in the presence of Jesus. Do we react like the magi, falling down and giving Jesus our very best?

5) Finally, after meeting Jesus, the gospel tells us that they “returned to their own country by another way.” More than just geographical, they returned changed. When we meet Jesus, we can’t go back the same way as if nothing happened.

I pray that this celebration of the Epiphany may inspire you listen carefully for God’s direction and to boldly set out where he calls. May the encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist change your life and set you off on a new way, inspired by the example of the magi.

Homily 306 – The Octave of Christmas Calls Us To Witness – Mary Mother of God

January 1st, 2016, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

St. StephenToday’s homily explores the 8-day period following Christmas that the Church calls the “Octave of Christmas.” Christmas is much too big of a celebration to fit into just one day, so we stretch it out over eight. However, the octave of Christmas is filled with more than just shepherds and angels. Many of the days a filled with bloodshed and martyrdom. This is no accident. Understanding the celebrations in the Octave of Christmas can do a lot to help us understand what Christmas is really all about.

Homily 305 – A Christmas Lesson from Scrooge – Christmas

December 25th, 2015, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

Scrooge“Marley was dead: to being with… There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”

With these famous lines from the beginning of “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens goes to great pain to repeat and make clear that a man is dead. The reason for his insistence will become clear in just a few pages when this same man, who was “as dead as a door-nail,” appears seemingly alive again and talking with Scrooge in his bedroom. A wonder indeed!

After the story of Christmas related in St. Luke’s gospel tonight, perhaps the second best known story of Christmas in English is the story of “A Christmas Carol.” Just the name Scrooge brings to mind one of the greatest Christmas villains of all time. In a spiritual sense, we could say that Scrooge too was “dead… as dead as a door-nail” or at least close. Yet, at the heart of this timeless story is conversion, redemption and mercy. As we celebrate Christmas this year in the Jubilee of Mercy, I see three key lessons from the story of Scrooge that can benefit all of us.

1 ) Scrooge was bad and he didn’t hide it. He didn’t try to fake it, pretending to be a good person. He hated Christmas and everyone knew it. Like Marley who was repeatedly said to be dead…before he was alive again…we have to acknowledge where we are dead. We have to acknowledge how bad things really are in certain areas. Recognizing our fallenness and need for mercy is the critical first step, “or nothing wonderful can come of the story” God is going to work in our lives. Scrooge was not so good and, in many ways, neither are we. That is the truth.

2) Scrooge couldn’t save himself. In fact, he didn’t really even know how bad his life had become. This is why Marley was sent to him in the first place, to warn him. In addition to the ghost of Marley, Scrooge is visited by three “spirits” who use the past, present, and future, to help heal him. This is a beautiful example of God’s mercy. Scrooge couldn’t do it on his own and neither can we. Providentially, we too have guardian angel spirits and saints in heaven to intercede and help us. We need to call for help and beg God to visit us with his mercy precisely because we can’t save ourselves.

3) The future can be better than the past or the present. Scrooge finally realizes what his selfishness has done not only to all those around him, but to himself as well. When he has this amazing conversion, his most earnest wish is that his future can be different. This is the greatest gift of God’s mercy: It doesn’t matter what has been our past or what sins presently afflict us. Scrooge is given a new beginning. “Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!” God gives us this same chance each day, and especially during the Year of Mercy. As the prophet Jeremiah reminds us, we really can expect “a future full of hope.”

The Year of Mercy should not be understood as a time to become complacent, thinking that it doesn’t matter how we live, that God will have “mercy” on us. The gift of the Year of Mercy is a special opportunity to experience what Scrooge did, to recognize our need to change, to earnestly beg for the grace of conversion, and then to joyfully write a new story for our future. The time before us is our own. May we all experience the joy of Christmas with a purified and thankful heart just as Scrooge did.

Homily 304 – The Door is Open – 3rd Sunday of Advent

December 13th, 2015, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

Holy DoorWhen John the Baptist began preaching his message of repentance, people were willing to travel a great distance to the Jordan River in order to be baptized. There was something special about John. His message was urgent. People needed to change and they needed to do it right away. John was of course urgent in his message because the Messiah was coming. The most special time in all of human history was about to begin, a time that had been prepared from the beginning of the world.

Like the people in the time of John the Baptist, we too should live our life with a certain urgency. The Messiah has come, but he’s coming back. It could be any day. Pope Francis has just inaugurated the Year of Mercy. In doing so, he has called us the recognize this as a special time for repenting and receiving God’s mercy, a call not unlike that of John the Baptist.

In symbolizing this special opening to mercy available this year, the Holy Father has opened the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica and other churches in Rome. He has also ordered that holy doors be opened at various churches in every diocese around the world. While God’s mercy is always available, this is a special time. The time if more urgent and the need mercy great. People crossed the Judean wilderness to get to the Jordan River as a sign of their repentance. I encourage you take advantage of this Year of Mercy to begin a new journey with God, maybe even going through one of the holy doors to mark your new beginning. There are so many graces that God is making available at this time. Don’t miss out. Go through the door!

Homily 303 – Making Advent Concrete – 2nd Sunday of Advent

December 6th, 2015, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

PotholeAdvent is a very spiritual time. It’s a beautiful time for prayer and reflecting on the mysteries of Christmas and the coming of Jesus. Our faith offers an abundance of refreshment for the soul. Yet, we are more than just spirits. We have bodies and exist concretely in the world. The story of Christmas is not just an idea. When God chose to dwell among us, he really came among us…became one of us. God had always been present “spiritually” in the world, but at Christmas he actually became a part of our physical world.

So, while Advent is a spiritual time, it can’t just be an idea in our head. We need to do some actual concrete things this season to prepare to welcome Jesus. The Scriptures today use the example of preparing a way for God. Leveling mountains, filling in low places, making a smooth highway for God. To make this spiritual idea a reality, it means that we’ve got to do some spiritual road construction on our lives. We’ve all got some potholes that need some attention. Let’s use the time we have left to start taking some concrete steps to make some real changes. Let’s fix those potholes before they get too big.

Homily 302 – Ready to Run Forth – 1st Sunday of Advent

November 28th, 2015, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

Peter And John RunThe opening collect of today’s Mass asks God the Father that we would have “the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming.” As we begin this Advent season of preparing to meet the Lord, are we truly making an effort to run forth or do we fit better the description Jesus warns against in the gospel, “drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life?”

Advent is a reminder that that Jesus really is coming back and we need to be ready. Much as students need to prepare for finals, so we too need to prepare for the “final final.” We can’t just stall and try to run out the clock in life. It’s time to stir up our efforts. No more sitting around. No more putting things off. It’s time to run forth!

Homily 301 – The One Who Was, Is, and Is to Come – Christ the King

November 22nd, 2015, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

Christ the KingOur readings today remind us of God’s reign from before time began, throughout all time, and unto eternity. God always was and always will be. Today we honor Jesus with the earthly title of king. Yet we are reminded by the gospel that Jesus himself tells us that his true kingdom is not here in this world. We pray in the Our Father prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom and that his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. We honor our king Jesus by trying to make this world as much as possible conform to the way that Jesus truly is king in heaven. As we do so, we know that this world will never be perfect. Rather than a cause to despair, these imperfections keep us longing for the day when the king will return in glory and everything will be made right. May we all eagerly await the coming of that day, the return of the king.

Homily 300 – Memento Mori – 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

November 15th, 2015, by Fr. Shawn P. Tunink

Memento MoriIn ancient Roman times when emperors acted like gods and believed too often in their own immortality, one of his servants was given the job to walk beside him in procession and whisper the words “memento mori,” that is, “remember death.” Today’s readings and the entire month of November give us a change to remember death. How do we see death? Are we scared? Do we look forward to it? Perhaps most times we don’t even really think about it. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris perhaps have us a little more mindful these days about death. Today’s homily gives some insights into death and what we might expect.