Pope puts stamp on foot-washing act

ROME – Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of a dozen inmates at a juvenile detention center in a Holy Thursday ritual that he celebrated for years as archbishop. Two of the 12 were women, remarkable given that the church’s liturgical law says only men should participate.

The Mass was held in the Casal del Marmo facility in Rome, where 46 young men and women are detained. Many of them are Gypsies or North African migrants, and the 12 selected for the foot-washing rite included Orthodox and Muslim detainees, news reports said.

Because the inmates were mostly minors – the facility houses inmates aged 14 to 21 – the Vatican and Italian Justice Ministry limited media access inside. But Vatican Radio carried the Mass live, and Francis told the detainees that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion in a gesture of love and service.

“This is a symbol, it is a sign – washing your feet means I am at your service,” Francis told the youngsters. “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.”

Later, the Vatican released a limited video showing Francis washing black, white, male, and female feet, and a foot with tattoos. Kneeling on the stone floor as the 12 young people sat above him, Francis, 76, poured water from a silver chalice over each foot, then dried and kissed each one.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would celebrate the ritual foot-washing in jails, hospitals, or hospices – part of his ministry to the poorest and most marginalized of society. It’s a message that he is continuing as pope, saying he wants a church “for the poor.”

Previous popes carried out the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual in Rome’s grand St. John Lateran basilica. The 12 people chosen were always priests, to represent Christ’s apostles.

That Francis would include women is remarkable given liturgical rules that restrict the ritual to men.

Canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Holy See’s top court, noted that bishops over the years have successfully petitioned Rome for an exemption to allow women to participate, but that the law on the issue is clear. “Francis violates, of course, no divine directive,” Peters wrote. “What he does do, I fear, is set a questionable example.”