In what is being described as his most radical break with tradition so far, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 inmates at a juvenile detention center in Rome. Among the inmates were two women, an Italian Catholic and a Serbian Muslim woman.
AP reports the foot-washing rite, usually at the grand Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, was held this year at the Casal del Marmo detention center, where young men and women of diverse background are detained. The 12 inmates selected for the rite included Orthodox and Muslim detainees.
CNN reports that Francis' decision to celebrate the Holy Mass with young detainees at the Casal del Marmo center is seen as a significant departure from church tradition. But the pope's action is consistent with his past record of service to the poor and disadvantaged.
According to The Telegraph, while previous popes have washed feet on the day before Good Friday, this is the first time that a pope has washed the feet of a woman. That one of the women was a Serbian Muslim is also a major break with tradition.
AP reports that the ritual previously involved 12 priests representing the 12 apostles whose feet Jesus washed at the Last Supper before his crucifixion.
Pope Francis kisses feet
A video released by the Vatican (see above) shows the 76-year-old pontiff washing the feet of white and black inmates, female and male feet, including one with a tattoo. In the video, he kneels on the stone floor with the young inmates seated and pours water from a silver chalice over each foot. Then he dries the foot with a cotton towel before he kisses it.
According to The Telegraph, Gaetano Greco, a local chaplain, said: "There is no better way to show his service for the smallest, for the least fortunate." He said he hoped the ritual would be "a positive sign in their lives."
AP reports that Pope Francis' gesture has sparked a debate among Roman Catholic conservatives and liturgical purists who claim that he has set a "questionable example" that could backfire. However, church liberals have welcomed the act as heralding a movement toward greater inclusiveness in the church.
A church conservative and canon lawyer, Edward Peters, who acts as an adviser to the Holy See's highest court, recalls in a blog post that the Congregation for Divine Worship pronounced in a 1988 letter to bishops that "the washing of the feet of chosen men... represents the service and charity of Christ, who came 'not to be served, but to serve.'"
Peters argued that the rule on the issue of washing women's feet in the church ritual is clear. AP reports Peter wrote: "By disregarding his own law in this matter, Francis violates, of course, no divine directive. What he does do, I fear, is set a questionable example."
But the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in an email that although he did not want to get involved in a canonical dispute over the the pope's action, "Here, the rite was for a small, unique community made up also of women. Excluding the girls would have been inopportune in light of the simple aim of communicating a message of love to all, in a group that certainly didn't include experts on liturgical rules."
Pope Francis washes feet
However, before he became Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the archbishop of Buenos Aires, performed the foot-washing ritual in Argentinian jails, hospitals, at old peoples homes and with AID patients. AP reports that he often allowed women to participate in the ritual. There is a photograph that shows Bergoglio washing the feet of a woman holding a newborn.
The Telegraph also notes that as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was known for his social advocacy. He worked in slums and shunned the lavish lifestyle typical of senior Catholic Church officials.
A liberal priest, Reverend James Martin, author of "The Jesuit Guide," said: "The pope's washing the feet of women is hugely significant because including women in this part of the Holy Thursday Mass has been frowned on — and even banned — in some dioceses. It shows the all-embracing love of Christ, who ministered to all he met: man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Gentile."
Some conservatives, however, see the restriction as linked to the church rule that prohibits ordination of women priests. According to the argument, because Jesus washed only the feet of 12 male apostles, the church ritual should be restricted to male church priests.
Reverend John Zulsdorf, a conservative blogger, wrote: "This is about the ordination of women, not about their feet." He said Liberals "only care about the washing of the feet of women, because ultimately they want women to do the washing."
But Francis has never supported ordaining women. According to AP, in his 2011 book,"On Heaven and Earth," he defended the church rule that allows only men to be ordained as priests, saying it was was justified "Because Jesus was a man."
In his speech to the inmates after performing the ritual, the pope said: "This is a symbol, it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service. Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty. As a priest and bishop, I must be at your service."
He added: "Don't lose hope. Understand? With hope you can always go on."
One of the inmates asked him why he came to visit them. He said it was to help him learn humility. He assured the young man that the gesture came "from my heart."
"Things from the heart don't have an explanation," he said.
The pontiff, addressing his colleagues at a mass in St. Peter's Basilica, said: "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. It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord."