It is a tradition, on Holy Thursday, for Pope Francis to wash the feet of 12 people. This year, the 12 people chosen were prison inmates in Rome’s Rebibbia Prison. The Pope celebrated the Mass of Our Lord’s Supper with the prisoners. During the Sacrament, the Pope washed 12 prisoners’ feet and a baby’s feet at the prison. While the Pope washed the feet of the 12 people, he prayed over them. The Pope also asked that the inmates pray for him as well so that he would be cleansed of his “filth.”
As the ceremony was performed some of the prisoners were sincerely emotional and cried. Pope Francis knelt at their feet and poured water over one foot at a time. He then dried the foot and kissed it, as Jesus did for His apostles at the Last Supper. Pope Francis washed the feet of six men in the Rebibbia Prison and six women from a detention center in the area. One of the women had her son with her: Pope Francis washed and kissed his little feet too.
Pope Francis washing the feet of women, as well as, non-Catholics is a revolutionary act. Pope Francis also visits detention centers and facilities where there are sick people so that he may minister to them. According to the Vatican rules, the foot washing ceremony is to only be performed on men, because all of Jesus’ apostles were men. However, Pope Francis has broken Vatican rules before, washing the feet of Muslims and women, but this one is a new first; during an Easter ceremony, Pope Francis washed the feet of a woman who had previously been a television showgirl.
Pope Francis delivered a message in the prison chapel. He offered the inmates hope by telling them that Jesus loves them and that He gave His life for each of them. The Pope told the inmates that Jesus has done it for him and that he will do it for them. He said Jesus’ love was personal for each individual. His description of Jesus’ love was more of a personal relationship than that of worshipping a God that is out of reach.
Pope Francis explained the foot washing ceremony was how Jesus demonstrated His willingness to serve others as a slave. Jesus wanted to purify and cleanse each apostle individually and completely. Pope Francis said that even he needs the Lord to cleanse him. He prayed that his filth would be cleansed and that he would have a more slave-like attitude when he serves the people.
The messages that Pope Francis delivers in this ceremony are not written or pre-rehearsed, they are solely from his heart. He spoke about the prison ministry and his disagreement with the use of the death penalty. He referred to it as “inhumane,” and life sentences were only “hidden” death sentences. He meets with inmates often, even during his trip to Naples. In Naples, Pope Francis had lunch with gay and transgender prisoners.
After the ceremony, the Pope lingered with the inmates. He met and spoke with more of them and they were warm towards him, some kissing him on the cheek. He allowed them to linger, because he felt that they had a need for a human touch. He allowed ritualistic protocol to fall by the wayside when he walked down the aisle in the chapel allowing the prisoners to touch him while they honored him with loud applause.
Holy Thursday, also referred to as Maunday Thursday, is the celebration of The Last Supper. This was a large feast that Jesus had with His apostles, during which, he was arrested. This feast falls between Palm Sunday and Easter. During the Last Super, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus washed the feet of His apostles. (John 13:2-17) There were 12 apostles, this is why Pope Francis chooses to wash the feet of 12 people each year at a different location.
Last year, the Mass was held at a rehabilitation facility for the disabled and the elderly. The previous year, the Mass was held at a juvenile detention center. Pope Francis wants to reach out to as many people as he can.
Holy Thursday is the first of four busy days for Pope Francis. Friday, in Rome’s Coliseum, the Pope will be performing a late night Via Crucis procession, this is a representation of the Stations of the Cross. Saturday, is the reflective Easter Vigil the Pope presides over before celebrating Easter Sunday Mass.
In 2013, Pope Francis’ first Holy Thursday as Pope, he encouraged priests to be more than managers. He wanted them to go out of their comfort zone and minister to where there is bloodshed, suffering and “blindness that longs for sight.” “Blindness that longs for sight” refers to people who are unable to see the love of Jesus but want to see His love and blessings. This phrase is used frequently by Jesus in the New Testament.
On Good Friday, Pope Francis will lead thousands through the different Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum. This tradition goes back to the 18th Century. Pope Francis is progressive in his choices as Pope; washing Muslim’s feet, eating with the gay and transgender, visiting the sick and showing genuine love for all people.
By Jeanette Smith