LETTER FROM ROME: The Washing of the Feet: Symbol of Servant-Leadership

April 9, 2020. Holy Thursday. The lock-down continues with 139,715 cases and 17,722 fatalities. I haven’t eaten since Palm Sunday – I am on the fifth day of my total fast. Since I am not able to preach today, I will share my homily here:

The Washing of the Feet: Symbol of Servant-Leadership

During times of crisis, like this pandemic, the spotlight is often focused on those who exercise leadership. Incompetent, ruthless and self-serving rulers are unmasked and great leaders are revealed. What does it take to be a good leader?

The answer can be found in the gospel as well as the highlight of the liturgy of Holy Thursday – the washing of the feet.

We do not usually associate the washing of the feet with leadership. Yet we can regard this as a key to Jesus’ teaching on leadership which is servanthood – servant-leadership – manifested in a symbolic way at the last supper when he washed that feet of his disciples. After doing this he says: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” (John 13:14-15)

This sums up what Jesus’ life signify and what his death on the cross the following day means. Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples must have been a shocking and confusing act for the disciples. It is a demeaning act. Only servants do this.  Jesus’ washing of the feet is a symbolic act to dramatize his view of leadership – humble and loving service. This should be the underlying motivation in the exercise of leadership. Jesus presents himself as the model and asks his disciples to follow his example.

Leadership is often regarded as a high position.  Leaders are placed on a pedestal. They look down on their followers who look up to them. They look at those below them as their subordinates who should obey them. They occupy the top position and are served by those below them. Thus, leadership is viewed from a vertical perspective – top to bottom – like a pyramid. This is not how Jesus regards authority and leadership. Christ the King is Jesus the servant. He came to serve and not to be served. The ultimate symbol is the washing of the feet. He lowered himself and knelt to wash the feet of his disciples. To be a humble servant. This is what servant-leadership is all about.

Leaders should not look at themselves as above the rest, occupying the dizzy heights and feeling lonely at the top. To occupy a leadership role is not to ascend to a high, exalted position but to be humble and lower oneself. It is a descent, not an ascent, for a servant is not higher than those he serves. Thus, like Jesus this requires kenosis: self-emptying. This requires emptying oneself of pride and superiority complex — of thinking of oneself as god-like. This also requires emptying oneself of the drive to dominate and hold on to the trappings of power, pomp and privilege, of selfishness and self-centeredness. Humble and loving service – this is what is required of a servant-leader.

The emphasis on servant-leadership does away with the sense of entitlement, privilege and prestige that is often associated with the position of leadership and authority.  Leader must always remember that, like Christ, they are sent to serve and not to be served. As servants,  leaders are not greater or higher than those they serve. Leadership is not a position of honor or glory but of humble service – a position of responsibility. There is no room for vain-glory or pomposity. Servant-leadership is the antidote to selfishness and greed which is at the heart of many leaders driven by the lust for power, wealth and glory and who are responsible for the suffering and death of so many people. (Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR is Executive Co-Secretary of the Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation of the Union of Superiors General (USG-UISG) in Rome. He started his new work in January this year, after living a quiet life as hermit and exile since 2018. A native of Iligan City, Fr. Pics lived and worked in Davao City from 1995 to 2011 and was assigned to Manila where he served as Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines Basic Ecclesial Communities Committee from 201 to 2017. He went around the Philippines several times on bike or on foot, for peace and justice).