Pope Francis continued his break with Catholic tradition Thursday when, in a bold gesture, he washed and kissed the feet of two young women among a dozen inmates in a Holy Thursday ceremony at Casal del Marmo, a juvenile detention center in Rome.
Washing the feet of the two women was an extraordinary act since the Holy Week ritual has been restricted by Liturgical rules to men given that it is a reenactment of Jesus’ humility towards his apostles, all of whom were male, at the Last Supper on the eve of his crucifixion.
Although former Cardinal, now pope, Jorge Bergoglio included women in the rite carried out in jails, hospitals, or hospices when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires — part of his ministry to the poorest and most marginalized of society, this was the first time a pontiff has done so.
The Vatican and Italian Justice Ministry restricted media access of the Mass within the prison facility because the 46 men and women currently detained there are mostly minors, ages 14 to 21. A number of those inmates were Gypsies or North African migrants, and Muslim and Orthodox Christian detainees were among the 12 selected for the foot-washing ritual, news reports said. Despite limited media access, Vatican Radio carried the Mass live.
Francis explained to the young inmates that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love and charity.
“This is a symbol, it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service,” Francis told the group. “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.”
Holding the mass at the youth prison was also a papal first. Francis, elected a mere two weeks ago, said he selected the venue because he wanted to be closer to the suffering.
"We need to go out, then, in order to experience our own anointing (as priests) ... to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters," he said during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.
Previously, other pontiffs held the ritual in opulent basilicas St. Peter’s or St. John in Lateran, which is the pope’s cathedral church as bishop of Rome, and selected 12 priests to represent the 12 apostles.
The site of the venue reflects the pope’s belief in simplicity. His namesake invokes the patron saint of evangelical poverty, St. Francis, but also stems from his Jesuit formation. The Sons of Loyola take very seriously their vow of poverty and commitment to those who are impoverished and make it their mission to form young people into “men and women for others.”
So far, Francis has staved off lavishness by waving off symbols of luxury like gold pectoral crosses and ermine lined mantles, opting to live in a simple two-room suite at a Vatican hotel instead of the Apostolic Palace, and walking or busing around Rome rather than accepting rides in a chauffeured limo.
Francis’ most recent gesture has stirred up debate among some conservatives and liturgical purists.
In 1988, the Congregation of Divine Worship sent a letter to bishops explaining that the religious ritual is reserved for hand-picked men. Although bishops have successfully petitioned Rome over the years for an exemption to allow women to participate, the rules on the matter are clear, wrote canon lawyer Edward Peters, an advisor to the Holy See’s top court in a blog.
“By disregarding his own law in this matter, Francis violates, of course, no divine directive,” Peters wrote. “What he does do, I fear, is set a questionable example.”
Rev. Federico Lombardi noted that traditionally the rite was reserved for men only since the apostles were male, but added that he didn’t wish to enter into a canonical dispute over the matter.
“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,” Lombardi wrote in an email.
On the other hand, Liberals welcomed the pope’s gesture as a marker of greater inclusiveness in the church.
In a limited video released by the Vatican, 76-year-old Francis is seen hunched over, with the youths sitting above him pouring water from a silver chalice, washing, drying, and kissing a diversity of feet: white, black, male, female, even tattooed.
“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,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of The Jesuit Guide.
“It shows the all-embracing love of Christ, who ministered to all he met: man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Gentile,” he said.