The summer before I became a Dominican novice, I was invited to chaperone a week-long retreat for high school teens. The retreat centered on the intersection of faith and service in the Christian life. Each day teens attended morning Mass and then went out for a day of service in the local community. They would return in the late afternoon and, in the evenings, attend retreat conferences.
The Franciscan Brothers Minor, numbering slightly more than ten, helped facilitate the retreat. A recently established community that had just relocated to our diocese, they were completely unknown to the teens and the adult chaperones. At first, the teens were a little wary of the brothers. They found some of their ascetical practices, such as regularly going barefoot and wearing heavy wool habits (without so much as a whispered complaint in ninety-degree heat) a little unsettling.
As the week progressed, however, the teens really began to open up to the brothers. When picking teams for ultimate Frisbee matches or other games, they chose the brothers first, and, in the cafeteria, they would clamor for the brothers to sit at their tables. The brothers’ gentle kindness and unassuming presence had quickly won them over.
As the week drew to a close, the teens began suggesting ways in which they could repay the brothers for all they had done. They suggested giving them tee shirts or buying something for their community, but, remembering how radical the brothers’ poverty was, they realized these gifts could not be accepted. A myriad of ideas were proposed, to no avail.
Then inspiration struck. They had a plan, and they set about putting it into action. The next morning, all the retreatants gathered in the auditorium, as usual, for prayers and announcements. On the stage, there were about a dozen chair set up in an arc, and, as the announcements concluded, the retreat director invited the brothers up to be thanked for their work.
The brothers were instructed to sit, and they did so, a bit puzzled, since it was not yet clear what was going to happen. Music began to play, and the teens fell silent. A group of seniors appeared on stage and, approaching the brothers, began to wash their feet. This was no little gesture; these were men who never wore shoes. At first I thought they’d resist, and one brother did try, just like Saint Peter. Then he realized what he had done, and tears came streaming down his cheeks. In fact, more than one of these robust spiritual warriors let a few crystalline drops fall from their eyes, as these teens offered their silent gesture of love.
There are many false notions of servant leadership bandied about in our culture. Most of these distort the truth by excluding either faith, on the one hand, or action, on the other. In the Gospel of John, Jesus emphatically says we need both. “Do you realize what I have done for you?” he asks the Apostles. This is an invitation to meditate, to reflect on our faith. Then he says, “As I have done for you, you should also do.” Here we have an exhortation to action. Finally, he says, “If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.” To imitate him, to live as he did, we must quietly stoop and take up the basin and towel.