In a Holy Week first, newly elected Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 young prisoners, including women and non-Catholics, in a rite typically reserved for priests.
"Among us the one who is highest up must be at the service of others," he told the prisoners. "This is a symbol, it is a sign — washing your feet means I am at your service."
The Maundy Thursday service was performed at Rome's Casal del Marmo Penitentiary Institute for Minors, a juvenile detention center. According to the Telegraph, this is the first time any pontiff has washed a woman's feet, and one of the women was a Serbian Muslim — another first.
"We need to 'go out,' ... to the 'outskirts' where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters," said the pontiff at a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica prior to visiting the prison. "It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord."
The ritual of foot-washing takes place on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week to represent Christ washing the feet of the twelve apostles prior to his crucifixion. Pope Francis's move was unorthodox in part because the apostles are believed to have been all male.
The washing follows a pattern of the pope bringing attention to the disenfranchised. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio kissed and washed the feet of 12 AIDS patients in 2001, and has also washed the feet of drug addicts and pregnant women, but this was the first time a pope had done this. Since his election as pope, Francis has attracted attention for eschewing traditional perks of the papacy in favor of more humble accommodation.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, prison chaplain Capuchin Fr. Gaetano Greco said that explaining to the inmates, many of whom are immigrants, the significance of the pope's visit wasn't easy.
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But then, as Greco told the Vatican newspaper, a young detainee from Naples "clutched his own head" and shouted, "Oh, Mother of God, the pope here!?"
"This was something truly out of the ordinary, and they began to ask questions. Little by little I saw them getting more enthused, and from that moment on it hasn't died down," Greco said.
The priest told the Vatican newspaper he believed the pope's visit would have a positive impact on the detainees.