Beliefs

Pope washes feet of two girls, two Muslims at youth prison

pope francis
Pope Francis waves from the pope-mobile during his inauguration Mass at St. Peter's Square on Tuesday (March 19) at the Vatican. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Francis on Thursday (March 28) washed the feet of 12 young inmates, including two girls and two Muslims, during a Maundy Thursday Mass at a youth detention center in Rome.

The Argentine pontiff, who has shown an eagerness to break with tradition in the two weeks since his election to the papacy on March 13, chose to celebrate the rite in the Casal del Marmo prison in northwest Rome, rather than in the traditional venue of the St. John Lateran Basilica.

pope francis

Pope Francis waves from the pope-mobile during his inauguration Mass at St. Peter’s Square on Tuesday (March 19) at the Vatican. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Francis has repeatedly stated his desire to bring the papacy and the church closer to the poor and the marginalized.

The inclusion of two women in the rite — which commemorates Jesus’ washing of the feet of the apostles on the night before his death — is also a first for a pope, but Francis had already done so as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

As all of Jesus’ apostles were men, popes usually washed the feet of 12 male priests. Outside the Vatican, many bishops will wash only the feet of men.

In a brief, unscripted homily, Francis explained that the foot-washing ceremony exemplifies Jesus’ message that men — including those in positions of power and authority — must be in service of each other.

“Among us, who is above must be in service of the others,” he said. “This doesn’t mean we have to wash each other’s feet every day, but we must help one another.”

Media access to the youth prison was limited since most inmates are minors, but the Vatican’s chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, reported that Francis knelt in front of the 12 youths and kissed their feet after having washed and dried them.

“It was an impressive gesture,” he said, adding that it was also “physically taxing.”

After the Mass, the pope personally greeted all the inmates as well as the prison’s staff and volunteers. “Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope,” he told the young offenders before leaving.

The Casal del Marmo youth prison houses 49 inmates aged 14-21, mostly coming from North Africa and Eastern Europe.

Earlier on Thursday, at a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica that marks the beginning of Easter celebrations for the Catholic Church, Francis called on priests to avoid becoming “managers” and “collectors of antiques or novelties.”

He urged them to “go out of themselves,” into the “outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters.”

About the author

Alessandro Speciale

Alessandro Speciale has been covering the Vatican since 2007 and wrote for Religion News Service from 2011-2013. Born in Rome, he studied literature at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy, and journalism at City University, London. He has appeared as an expert on Vatican affairs on CNN, BBC World and Al Jazeera English.

9 Comments

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  • Thanks to Almighty God for giving us Pope Francis a Jesuit that his work helping the poor and underprivileged is as real as if Jesus Christ was between us.

    I am a 73 years old who studied under American Jesuits in iraq for 10 years

    I salute you Pope Francis and I wish you a very happy Easter.

    In Christ’s Love

    Christ has risen

    Voltaire E Warda

  • The new Bishop of Rome is certainly showing a new leadership style. His humility and willingness to mix with prisoners and others with problems may cause others in high positions to think twice about their arrogant displays of wealth and power. Arrogance breeds risk while humility breed caution and caring. His leadership may actually cause others to think twice! I wonder if any other world leader would consider washing the feet of his constituents or even lower themselves to meet them in their own homes. Hello Mr Obama? Mr Cameron? Mr Netanyahu? Mr Meshaal (HAMAS)? See more at: http://tinyurl.com/abtwmo7

  • I hope visits the Philippines and teach the priests not to be bullies. I’m glad it wasn’t a filipino, Bishop Tagle, who became pope. He would have done a lot of harm to the Church. I love Pope Francis. I hope he can reform the church in our country. They interfere so much with politics.

  • Thanks be to God for the examplary life of our pope. Holding strictly to tradition can sometimes lead the faithful into forgeting the true teaching of Christ’ love.

  • More important than the liturgical statement Pope Francis may have intended to telegraph is that, in doing so, he may have overlooked, neglected, or disregarded, if not violated Muslim law.according to the Code of Ethics for Muslim Men and Women—Rules Related to Socializing:

    The Rules of Touching

    193 – Rule: Body contact is not allowed with one who it is not allowed to look at, and every kind of touching of the body to any part of the other one’s body is haram and one must refrain from this; unless it from on top of the clothing and it is without the intention of lust. ABGKLMS
    While the Pope may have intended this particular footwashing to be “a positive sign” in the life of the Serbian Muslim inmate whose foot he washed, strict Muslims may take offense.

    Like Pope Benedict XVI, it may not be long before Pope Francis finds himself being challenged by an Imam who issues a fatwa. In October 2006,Prominent Jamaat leader Hafiz Saifullah Khalid said that in the present circumstances, jihad has become obligatory for each Muslim. Muslims are being declared terrorists and our battle for survival has already started.

    Eschewing protocol can be refreshing and prove reinvigorating. It can be a sign of love and respect, fulfilling the spirit of the law” rather than living according to the “letter of the law.”

    In retrospect, it can also cause unintended problems.In retrospect, it can also cause unintended problems.

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