(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)
This tradition comes directly from the Gospel read at the Mass when Christ, after having washed the feet of the disciples, tells them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. 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.” This is the particular priestly mandatum.
That was, and remains today, the proper model for all priests and bishops. The priest is sent out without concern for what reward waits him at the end of the day. He ought to be unambitious as the world regards ambition, but still zealous in spreading the word and message of Jesus Christ to the four corners of the world. He ought to be not only willing, but unafraid, to lay aside his ego and selfish desires for the sake of others. He ought to know that each day as his head rises from the pillow that he need not concern himself with anything but the doing the work of Christ.
However, Christ once told them that he was sending them as sheep among wolves. Today he reminds them that this is easier said than done and that they need to follow His example so they do not become the wolves. In this simple, humble act Christ accomplishes more than He ever could have with a thousand words. The image of Christ, God and man, perfect, without stain, humble and obedient, bending over to wash his disciples' feet needs to resound in the heart and mind of each priest so that it is indelibly emblazoned on his soul.
Christ later tells Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith may never fail.” If Peter needed it, how much more do the rest of us! Absolutely integral to the priest succeeding in the mandatum is the prayer of those whose feet he washes. The holiness of the priest depends upon the graces which flow from those intercessory prayers for him. In short, he cannot live without them. So, perhaps today, this feast day of the priest, you could offer this prayer for priests, one which St. Ignatius wrote for himself, but which applies to all, especially priests. (Pronouns changed from “me” to “they):
“Lord, teach them to be generous; teach them to serve you as you deserve: to give and not count the cost, to fight and not heed the wounds, to toil and not to look for rest, to labor and not ask for reward; save that of knowing that they are doing your will.” Amen.