For Catholics, Holy Thursday is one of the most sacred days of the liturgical year. It’s also the beginning of the sacred triduum, three days of prayer that end on Easter when Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated.
Father Donald Oleksiak, diocesan administrator, celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on April 9 in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Cleveland. Concelebrants were Father Dan Schlegel, vicar for clergy and religious; Father Sean Ralph, cathedral rector; Father John Manning, delegate for senior priests; and Father Arnel Lagman, cathedral parochial vicar, all of whom are in residence at the cathedral rectory.
The liturgy, which commemorates the Last Supper, was different due to the ongoing coronavirus health crisis. Traditionally, the celebrant washes the feet of several members of the congregation, symbolic of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. This year, the Mass was celebrated privately and livestreamed on the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland website. Also, the foot-washing did not occur this year due to the ongoing health crisis.
The readings – from Exodus and Corinthians – related the Old Testament story of the Passover and the institution of the Eucharist. St. John’s Gospel told the story of the Last Supper, including Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and his acknowledgement of Judas’ betrayal. In the Gospel, John wrote that Jesus was “fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God,” indicating that Jesus knew what awaited him – his Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Father Schlegel began the homily by sharing the story of a priest from New York who was visiting Rome and saw a beggar at a church. He thought the man looked familiar, so he asked if they had ever met. The beggar told him yes, they had been in the seminary together.
A few years after his ordination, the beggar explained, he had “crashed and burned” in his vocation. The priest promised the man he would pray for him, but he was shaken by the experience. “How could someone he was so close to be in that situation?” Father Schlegel said the priest asked himself.
Soon after, the priest was at a function with Pope John Paul II and asked the Holy Father to pray for the man because he was lost. The pope promised that he would.
Father Schlegel said the next day, the priest got a call from the pope’s secretary inviting him and the beggar to dinner with the Holy Father. The priest went to share the news with the beggar, who said he couldn’t possibly attend because he hadn’t bathed and had no decent clothing. But the priest took him to his hotel so the man could shower, shave and change clothes.
“They had a wonderful dinner,” Father Schlegel said. Shortly before dessert, the Holy Father asked everyone to leave so he could be alone with the man. After they spent several minutes together, the others returned.
While walking back to the hotel, the priest asked his friend what had happened. “With tears running down his cheeks, the beggar said the pope asked the man to hear his confession,” Father said, adding that the man tried to explain to the Holy Father that he was no longer in good standing with the Church. “I can’t. I’m not a priest anymore, I’m a beggar,” the man told the pope.
But the pope replied: “So am I,” Father Schlegel said. The pope told the man he was the vicar of Christ and the bishop of Rome and could return him to good standing immediately – and he did. “Then the man dropped to his knees and asked the pope to hear his confession,” Father said.
The Holy Father told the man to report back to the church where he had been begging. He contacted the pastor and told him the newly reinstituted priest should serve at that parish with a special ministry to the poor -- which he did for many years.
“The most exalted religious leader in the world lowered himself to a beggar,” Father Schlegel said, comparing the story with the Gospel. “We encounter Jesus tonight in John’s Gospel – on his knees – taking the lowliest position to show us not only how we should be, but to show us the way.” He said Jesus gives us new life and dignity through the Eucharist.
“For those who ask what would Jesus do, here’s your answer. We celebrate the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood,” he said. “The message is that God gets down on his knees for us and asks us to do the same for one another. He asks us to be like Christ,” Father Schlegel said.
Perhaps Jesus was preparing the disciples for the long, challenging journeys they would have as they brought the Gospel to the ends of the earth, he said.
“We walk through life carrying the debris of our lives,” Father said, noting “it clings to us and holds us down. But here in the Eucharist, we’re washed clean, renewed again. It begins less with words and more with action – with service – doing what others won’t do.”
Father Schlegel connected those thoughts with today’s health crisis, pointing out that in times like this, service is shown by hospital workers, first responders and others on the front lines who are caring for COVID-19 patients.
“When survival is at stake, remember our dependence is on one another and on the Lord. It begins at the table of the Eucharist where the bread and wine is exalted and offered to Christ; where we put into practice what Jesus asked us to do in memory of him,” he said.
When Mass ended, the priests spent a few minutes in private adoration before processing silently from the sanctuary.
Pre-recorded Stations of the Cross can be viewed at noon on Good Friday, April 10, on the diocesan website.
At 3 p.m. on Good Friday, Father Oleksiak will preside at the Passion of the Lord, a private liturgy that will be livestreamed from the cathedral on the diocesan website. Father Ralph will be the homilist.
The Easter Vigil, also a private Mass, will be celebrated and livestreamed at 7:30 p.m. on Holy Saturday, April 11, from the cathedral. Father Oleksiak will be the celebrant and Father Manning will preach.
Father Oleksiak will celebrate a private Mass at 9:30 a.m. on Easter, April 12, from the cathedral. That liturgy also will be livestreamed on the diocesan website.
Click here to view the livestreamed liturgies, which also are available on demand after the broadcast