The most vivid remembrances of Holy Week, which come to my mind each year during that season, go back to my primary school years.
We lived in a town, small by comparison to those that I later lived in, which was, however, an episcopal See of the Byzantine-rite Catholic Church, to which we belonged. The cathedral was an imposing structure with two towers. It was placed in the center of the town, in a square, which was in fact a rectangle, with the East-West axis more than twice the North-South axis. The Western half was a French-style public garden, with no trees, but with flower beds bordered by low boxwood hedges, and alleys with benches. Between the cathedral and the garden there was a paved plaza.
Of the other churches in town, the one of the Roman rite did not have space around it. It was in the middle of a block on another central street. In its vicinity there was its school, with German nuns because the faithful belonged to the German minority. Farther from the center, there was the Orthodox church, which had only one tower.
Of the Holy Weeks that I lived there, the most memorable was when I was nine years old. I was a torch bearer at both Holy Friday and Resurrection processions: from the main entrance to the left, then through the streets around the church, continuing around the French garden, and back through the main entrance.
The Easter night procession ended in front of the closed church door and the celebrant knocked and called: “Open the gates of heaven for the King of Glory to enter!” The candles of the faithful were lighted from that of the celebrant, when he called: “Come and take light!” At the end, all walked home with the candles they had lighted in church, members of a family, sometimes two neighboring families, close together, so if the wind were to blow out a candle it could be re-lighted from another. Tradition required bringing the flame from the church home. By its light, the first red-dyed eggs were knocked. The person who hit said “Christ is risen,” the one who held answered “Truly he is risen!” (This was, in those days, also the greeting that people addressed to each other when they met on the street, until Ascension.) After that, the light in the room was turned on, we ate the eggs, and went to sleep to be ready for the great liturgy at ten in the morning.
The central figure was Bishop Bălan, who was the celebrant all throughout the Holy Week. There was something special about him: whenever he preached a sermon he had something to say directly to the children, and then his eyes were smiling. In fact, he had a sunny disposition, yet he was quite impressive. He was a tall man with a greyish-white beard. He wore glasses. My mother said that he had been operated on for some eye condition. Later, in prisons and camps, he went blind, but he was still comforting and cheering up the other inmates. He died there and, as for all other bishops, a death certificate was issued five years or more later, with the entry in the box for “occupation of the deceased,” “no occupation.”
There was only one other priest that I remember with a beard, Father Ploscaru, but his was brown. He was a young man with a pale complexion. Once, hearing in confession about a raid on the pantry to steal preserves from a jar, he uttered a correction in his scholarly voice: “This is not the sin of theft, but the sin of gluttony.” His frail appearance was, however, deceiving. He survived seventeen years of prison and camps and came out to be a bishop.
Anyway, those events were not to begin until about eighteen months in the future and few of the ordinary people would then have predicted that they would happen.
The Holy Thursday towers in my memory over all other days of that week. Just before the Easter vacation, I was told by the priest who taught us Catechism in school that I had been selected to have my feet washed by the bishop at the liturgy on that day. Because only the bishop could perform that ceremony, the cathedral was jammed. There were people that came to town from other places on that day.
Uncharacteristically for him, when he performed that ritual the bishop became very emotional. His hands had a very faint but unmistakable tremor and his eyes were misty. When he reached the last in line, a bright, articulate boy of twelve, who uttered the words of Peter, the voice of the bishop as he said the words of Christ was choked with tears.
After the liturgy, we went to the residence of the bishop for brunch. It took twenty minutes to reach it. In fact, he usually walked to the cathedral when the weather was good.
We were seated at a long table, with the bishop at the head, we on the two sides, and a young priest at the other end. We ate: dried fruit soup; boiled potatoes, tossed with chopped onion that had been sauteed in oil, then the whole thing put in the oven; finally, some pastry, like donuts with no hole. After eating, we each received a copy of the New Testament, which the bishop had translated into Romanian; he signed each on the title page. I still have that book. He had also completed most of a translation of the Old Testament, but he was arrested before completing it. I never heard of any of it being recovered; most likely the security police threw away or burned all the materials connected to it.
As I said already, only the bishops were conducting this ceremony. There were five dioceses for one million and a half faithful in the country. There was one seminary, at the Metropolitan See. There the twelve selected were seminarians. In the other dioceses, the subjects were boys who had received the first four Sacraments. After the Roman rite moved the Confirmation to a later age, the Eastern rites continued to administer it to infants, immediately after baptism (which in modern times turned out to have been a monumental mistake). Therefore, the subjects of the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday were nine to twelve years old. These rules were strictly obeyed. I kept them in my mind, but I did not think much about them until, many years later, I needed to understand their reasons for myself.
As I figured it out, Christ’s action was not aimed at the poor or the downtrodden. He did not call the lepers, the lame, and the blind, like those whom He had touched and cured many times. He did not call the women who served and prepared the supper. The subjects of His action were His disciples, whom He had chosen before. After being taught for three years, they were commissioned, ordained, consecrated, at the Last Supper. The process involved two steps. In the first, the washing of the feet, they were commissioned to service. In the second, they were ordained to the Eucharist and were consecrated from disciples to priests and Apostles.
I concluded that the washing of the feet by bishops was meant to emphasize the founding of the Church by Christ through his Apostles, rather than just charity and compassion. Based on this understanding, the reason for the selection of seminarians for the ceremony was obvious. When the diocese had no seminary, subjects who could potentially follow the path of discipleship to the priesthood could be licitly chosen.
It then follows that selecting women as subjects for the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday is nonsensical; selecting heathens or Moslems is sacrilegious.
Ronald D. Bachman, ed. Romania: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989: Religion; http://countrystudies.us/romania/48.htm