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Pope washes young offenders’ feet at Holy Thursday Mass

Pope Francis washes the foot of a young offender during last year's Holy Thursday Mass at Rome's Casal del Marmo prison (CNS)

Pope Francis washed the feet of 10 young men and two young women during the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Casal del Marmo young offenders’ institute in Rome this evening.

During the evening Mass at the prison for young people, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 young people of different nationalities and faiths, including at least two Muslims, who are housed at the juvenile detention facility.

The ceremony of washing another’s feet is important, the Pope said, because it shows that “the person who is most high among us must be at the service of the others”.

It also means that “we have to help one another, each one,” he said during the Holy Thursday Mass.

The Pope broke with a papal Holy Week tradition of celebrating the evening Mass at a Rome basilica.

While the prison Mass marked a first for the modern papacy, the practice was nothing new to Pope Francis who, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires used to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper – which reflects on the call to imitate Christ by serving one another and commemorates Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist – in prisons, hospitals or shelters for the poor and marginalised.

Held in the prison’s small chapel, the Mass was the second of two Holy Thursday liturgies over which the pope presided. The first was a morning chrism Mass in St Peter’s Basilica.

The nearly 50 detainees, including about a dozen women, attended the Mass. Detainees did the readings and led the prayers of the faithful.

A group of young people who volunteer at the prison, as well as a local charismatic group, provided the music, playing acoustic guitar and leading the singing.

In his brief homily, which he delivered off-the-cuff, Pope Francis explained what the ritual he was about to perform meant and what Jesus was teaching his disciples when he washed their feet at the Last Supper.

“To wash your feet, this is a symbol, a sign that I am at your service,” the Pope said. “But it also means that we have to help each other.”

He told the young detainees that it was normal to get angry at others, “but let it be, let it be”. If that person “asks you a favour, do it. Let’s help each other,” he told them.

He added that he would wash their feet with love.

“I do it with my heart because it is my duty as priest and as bishop; I have to be at your service,” he said.

“It’s a duty that comes from my heart because I love doing this, because this is what the Lord taught me,” he added.

“This sign is a caress from Jesus,” he said, “because Jesus came exactly for this, to serve and to help us.”

He said that, while he was washing the feet of the 12 young men and women, all at the Mass should ask themselves: “Am I really willing to help others?”

He urged all the detainees to follow the Lord’s example and help others because that way “we will also do good” in the world.

Vatican Radio reported that the Pope knelt on both knees before the youths, washed, dried and then kissed their feet.

The Pope later exchanged the Sign of Peace – a hug and kiss – with the young people whose feet he washed. He also distributed Communion, which he had not been doing at more public Masses.

While media outlets were not allowed inside the facility, Vatican Radio offered a live audio feed and the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi briefed reporters afterwards. He said the ritual was “extremely moving” because kneeling on both knees was very demanding for a 76-year-old pope.

At the end of the Mass, Pope Francis greeted the residents and 150 members of the prison staff and other guests in the gym.

The Pope thanked everyone for their warm welcome and said he was happy to be with them.

In strong words of encouragement, he told the young people: “Press on! Don’t let yourselves be robbed of hope. Understood?”

The Pope greeted the residents with hugs and gave each of the young detainees a large chocolate egg and a traditional Italian Easter cake shaped like a dove.

The detainees, who range in age from 14 to 21, then gave the pope a wooden crucifix and kneeler they made in the detention center’s woodshop.

Among those concelebrating with the Pope were Cardinal Agostino Vallini, papal vicar for Rome, Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, the number three official at the Vatican Secretariat of State, Capuchin Fr Gaetano Greco, prison chaplain, two deacons and two seminarians.

Only eight of the detainees are Italian. The rest are immigrants, many of whom are Muslim while some others are non-believers, Fr Greco said. Many come from North Africa or Slavic nations.

Explaining to them who the Pope was and why his visit was important “wasn’t easy”, Fr Greco told the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.

“I felt dejected for a bit when I saw faces lacking emotion or others curious as to why I was so enthusiastic,” he said.

But the silence was soon broken, the priest said, when a boy from Naples clutched his own head and shouted: “Oh, Mother of God, the Pope here!?”

Once the others saw the boy’s astonishment and happiness, they started to understand “that 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,” Fr Greco said.

The priest, who has been chaplain at the facility for more than 30 years, said he was sure the Pope’s visit would have a positive impact on the detainees, as did the visits from Blessed John Paul II in 1980 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.

The full text of Pope Francis’s homily:

This is moving, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Peter understands nothing. He refuses but Jesus explains to him. Jesus, God did this, and He Himself explains it to the disciples. ‘Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do’.

It is the example set by Our Lord, it’s important for Him to wash their feet, because among us the one who is highest up must be at the service of others. This is a symbol, it is a sign – washing your feet means I am at your service. And we are too, among each other, but we don’t have to wash each other’s feet each day. So what does this mean? That we have to help each other…sometimes I would get angry with one someone, but we must let it go and if they ask a favour of do it!

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. But it is a duty that comes from my heart and a duty I love. I love doing it because this is what the Lord has taught me. But you too must help us and help each other, always. And thus in helping each other we will do good for each other.

Now we will perform the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet and we must each one of us think, Am I really willing to help others? Just think of that. Think that this sign is Christ’s caress, because Jesus came just for this, to serve us, to help us.