Today, Pope Francis has been celebrating Mass at Casal de Marmo, a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Rome, and washing the feet of the prisoners there.
This is one of the many gestures that has captured the imagination of people around the world, along with his willingness to get out of his car to shake hands with people without the fear of getting shot, wanting to pay off his hotel bill, and choosing to live in a simpler apartment. I don’t know about you, but I find all of this very exciting. In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has had problems with its PR (rightly so, because of the ways in which it has covered up abuse scandals). But with the white smoke has come a whiff of excitement. Maybe, the church in its impoverished state, can become the church of the poor, for the poor. And, without doubt, what the world needs is, according to Pope Francis, a wounded church that goes out onto the streets, rather than a sick church that is withdrawn into its own world.
There has been far too much inspiration and charity from within the Roman Catholic Church for it to be hidden behind a smokescreen of scandal.
The juvenile detention centre has 48 prisoners. The majority of them are Muslims. Pope Francis will wash the feet of 12 of the prisoners.
I wonder how they will feel. I wonder what will go through their minds. I wonder what sensations will travel from their feet and from the ground of their being. Will they know, through this action, that God loves them? Will they know that they are dear to him? Will they know that they are forgiven for the wrong paths those feet have taken them?
I wonder what Pope Francis will feel through his hands, in his mind and at his heart. Will he feel the journey those feet have made? Those feet of young people. Will he feel inside their shoes, their trainers, their boots, their bootees to the life they have led? Will he understand their running away from their homes, rival gangs, the police? Will he feel the cramping of life in those shoes and why they have kicked off?
This is what Maundy Thursday is about, that we love one another. It is a new commandment which is fleshed out in Jesus example of foot washing, and which is reenacted across the world this evening, including prisons and a detention centre in Rome. This is a love which is prepared to lovingly tend the other, whatever the state of the other’s feet may be, wherever those feet have been. This is a love which feels for the other, and which forms the foundation for a community of vulnerability, compassion and love with the least, the last and the lost.
It is a transformative act. The two parties will never feel the same about each other again. He felt for me. He understood me. He held me dear. He loved me.
Another Francis has hit the news this week. The Francis Report is the independent inquiry into what has gone wrong with the NHS in the light of the Mid Staffs Hospital. The important thing highlighted is the question of how to restore compassion to the National Health Service, and how safe care can be given to every patient every time. The publication of the report had nurses ringing in to Radio 5’s phone in, frustrated that they are unable to provide the level of care that they should be providing. Their hearts were going out to those who have been neglected, but their hands were tied up in so much other work.
I looked for a response to the Francis Report on Twitter from nurses. Mara Carlyle, now singer, but was a NHS nursing assistant for 7/8 years, mostly on wards so understaffed, tweeted:
If you give nurses enough resources and time to do their jobs properly, guess what? They will and they do. Because there weren’t enough staff for everyone’s basic needs to be attended to which inevitably led to some poor standards of care, that we often had to choose between attending to patients who were (variously) crying, dying, hungry, thristy, dirty, fallen out of bed …
Alison Leary, a registered nurse and macmillan lecturer in oncology writes of the work of a nurse (work described by Florence Nightingale as “women’s work which should be done quietly and in private”) and she asks:
How would you feel about dealing with a stranger in such an intimate way? A stranger who is so humiliated at his or her inability to control their own bodily functions that they weep? Then imagine having to care for him or her and 29 other patients with only two colleagues to help you.
So we have the juxtaposition of the Francis Report and its admissions about compassion, and Pope Francis and his expression of compassion, feeling for the other, loving the other.
Nurses want to alleviate suffering – physical, psychological, social and spiritual.
The dilemma for nurses is how they can show compassion in a system which expects so much from them.
If that is the dilemma of the nursing profession, it is perhaps the dilemma of our society. Don’t we want to be the answer to the problem of suffering, however that is experienced?
How does the NHS recover its capacity for compassion? How do we become compassionate? How do we feel for one another? How do we love one another?
The answer is repeated in story after story – from the story of the care of the Good Samaritan, to the story of the nurse most likely referred to as an angel. All of them are touching stories.
The answer is hinted at in tonight’s liturgy, and in Jesus own example of footwashing and his encouragement (“should”- is that command or encouragement?) for us to do just the same. This is the practice of loving one another, just as Jesus loves us.
It is taking one step at a time, one gesture at a time.
If the time has come for you to be asking where compassion has gone from our dealings with one another, if society has become so complicated that you don’t know where to start, I can tell you the place to start is HERE. It always has been. The first step is in the here and now, in truly local initiatives like Jesus washing the feet of his dearest friends, like Francis washing the feet of the prisoners in a Rome detention centre, like the nurse holding the hand of a patient who is afraid – who through that touch reaches beyond the physical condition of the patient to her heart of hearts.