Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 inmates – six women (and the child of one of them) and six men – in Rome’s Rebibbia prison on Holy Thursday, and shook hands, kissed, and embraced hundreds of the detainees, amid scenes of great emotion.
The prisoners welcomed him with very warm applause and cheers when he arrived at this, the largest prison in the eternal city, at around five o’clock in the afternoon of April 2. The prison has 2,000 or more prisoners from many countries, and different continents. It has three sections for men and one for women; the women’s sector includes mothers with children, some of whom were at the mass with the Pope.
Francis has been pope for just over two years, and this is the second time that he has celebrated the Holy Thursday liturgy in a prison. He broke with tradition on his first Holy Thursday by going to celebrate the liturgy in a juvenile prison, and washing the feet of both women and men prisoners, including Muslims, as he had done over the years in Buenos Aires. The prison he visited this year gained international fame in the 1980s because the Turkish gunman, Ali Agca, who shot John Paul II was detained here for that crime, and the Polish Pope – who died ten years ago today – visited him here, and forgave him.
On arrival at the prison, Pope Francis greeted very many of the inmates, smiling all the time. He thanked them for their warm welcome and then vested for mass. Once ready, he processed with a cardinal, an archbishop and the prison chaplains into the “Our Father” chapel, where three hundred inmates (150 women, 150 men) were waiting for him, together with prison guards and volunteers who accompany the detainees. They applauded warmly as he entered; many reached out to touch him.
Some 1000 people, including 700 women and men prisoners were gathered outside the chapel and followed the whole ceremony on maxi-screens; the event was also transmitted on Vatican TV and watched by millions in Italy and other countries.
Francis conducted the simple ceremony in Italian, and was accompanied by a choir constituted by inmates, volunteers and guards. He gave a brief homily in Italian after the reading of the Gospel which recounted how Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his 12 apostles before his Passion and Crucifixion, but before doing so washed their feet as an example to his followers then and throughout history that they too should wash the feet of others, in a spirit of service and love.
Speaking without notes, Francis looked at the prisoners and began by telling them that the ceremony was meant to express God’s love for all people: “God loves us without limit, each and every single one of us. He never ceases to love us, whatever we do. And he will always continue to love us, you and you and you”, he said pointing in different directions at the inmates in the congregation.
He then explained the significance of the washing of the feet, which – he said – was the task of slaves at the time of Jesus, because people’s feet were dirty after walking on the dusty roads. “They didn’t have ‘sanpietrini’ at that time”, he quipped, drawing laughter. (He was referring to the traditional small stones that pave the streets of Rome today). “Jesus at the last supper took on the role of the slave; he washed the feet of the apostles, to teach them and us that we have to do likewise, to wash the feet of others in service and love”, he added.
He told them he would now wash the feet of twelve of them, but “they represent all of you who live here, each and every one of you”. He concluded by saying, “I too need to be washed by the Lord”, and then asked them, “Please pray for me, that the Lord may wash away my dirtiness too, and may convert me even more into a slave in service”.
When he finished his very short homily – a mere three minutes – he took of his vestment, put on a white apron and accompanied by the Master of Ceremonies he washed the feet of the 5 women, one child, and six men detainees, and kissed them. Francis has considerable difficulty in kneeling, and this was evident when it came to the washing of the feet. Two priests had to help him go down on his knees, and get up again. He washed the feet of the 12 chosen ones, and then dried and kissed the foot of each of them with great tenderness, and then looked up and smiled at each one after doing so. Emotions ran high, not only for those who feet were washed – many wept, but also for those who were watching.
After prayers – including one for the Pope – Francis finished the celebration of mass, and at the end, smiling broadly; he blessed a mother inmate with her child, and then greeted, embraced, kissed or shook hands with countless prisoners as he left the chapel. He blessed bracelets and rosary beads at the request of the inmates, and allowed himself to be embraced and kissed by them.
After removing his vestments, he again greeted many more inmates and guards, before leaving the prison to return to the Vatican.