During Holy Week, you visited inmates in three prisons to pray with them and offer your reflections on the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Why have you made this such a priority in your Holy Week schedule?
I am simply following the example of Pope Francis. When he was elected pope on March 13, 2013, Holy Week was just about two weeks away. One of the first things he did as pope occurred on Holy Thursday, March 28. The Holy Father went to a detention center for young adults in Rome and washed the feet of 12 juvenile offenders. He told them they were loved by God, that the future was in their hands. That really inspired me, and I decided to follow his example.
This year, you visited the Orleans Justice Center (the Orleans Parish prison) and the Youth Study (Detention) Center in New Orleans on Holy Thursday, and then on Good Friday, you celebrated the Stations of the Cross at the Plaquemines Parish Detention Center in Davant. Were there any changes you made in those visits?
For the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, we specifically asked the administration at the Orleans Justice Center if they would include women this year. We were able to include women for the first time. The church allows us to wash the feet of men and women. The act is not just to re-enact Jesus’ washing the feet of the 12 apostles. Spiritually, it is our way of saying that today we will show charity, especially to those in need or forgotten. It says we take Jesus’ command seriously in our day and will show charity to our brothers and sisters.
What is the symbolism of Jesus’ action of washing his disciples’ feet?
By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus is saying, “I care about you; I have mercy on you.” Jesus washed the feet of Judas, his betrayer; he washed the feet of Peter, who denied him three times; and he washed the feet of all the apostles, who really just drifted away from him after his crucifixion.
They scattered and hid. Holy Thursday used to be called “Maundy” Thursday, which comes from the Latin word “mandatum” and means “commandment.” In washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus “commands” them to follow his example, to show that same unconditional love and mercy for others, even those whom he knew would betray him or deny him. We are commanded to love one another as Jesus loves us. It is humanly difficult to do that sometimes, especially if that person has inflicted harm on us or otherwise violated our trust.
But Jesus made it very clear: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This was the Son of God, and he became a servant. This is a sign of hope. The past cannot be changed, but there is hope for the future and for the person to undergo a radical conversion. Jesus said, “My love for you will never change. But I do call you to begin a new chapter in your life.” Going into a prison also fulfills another of Jesus’ commands in Matthew 25: “When I was in prison, you visited me.”
At the Youth Study Center in New Orleans, you were told that some of the offenders are as young as 11 years old. How do you process that kind of social breakdown?
It’s heartbreaking when you think of the degree to which their lives have been scarred. We want to communicate to them that God loves them and that they can change their way of life. They can’t change the past, but they can make the future different. We are here because we, as church, care for them. Although they are out of our sight, they are not out of our prayers and absent from our minds. Very frankly, I did not know this detention facility existed. You wouldn’t even know it’s here because it’s tucked away – just a few yards from the heavy traffic on I-610 but really invisible to the world. That’s why our prison ministry, which is run so well by John Messenheimer, is so effective. We’re able to discover these places and make sure we are there to care for those who are incarcerated. We are commanded to do so.
What was the main message you wanted to express to the incarcerated men and women?
In those moments when you are doubting, Jesus is there to wash your feet, not with water, but he’s there to tell you that he loves you and that he wants to invite you to a new way of life. No matter what we do or what we say, his love doesn’t change. There are times you may not see Jesus washing your feet, but I want to assure you that Jesus loves you and cares for you. As a faith community, we believe in you. Jesus calls you to start life again. I hope you can hear Jesus saying that.
Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.