Pope Francis washed the feet of a dozen prisoners, including young women, at a youth detention center in Rome as part of a Holy Thursday Mass ahead of Easter.
The pontiff poured water over the young offenders’ feet, wiped them with a white towel and kissed them.
The act of foot-washing at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is part of the Christian tradition that mirrors Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet.
Francis’ decision to celebrate the Mass with young offenders at the Casal del Marmo center represents a break with tradition but is in step with his record in embracing simplicity and humility.
The service has in past years been held at the grand Basilica of St. John Lateran, the official seat of the bishop of Rome.
This time, the Mass “will be, by his express desire, very simple,” the Vatican said before the service.
The young offenders were expected to give the pope a wooden crucifix and kneeler, which they made themselves in the detention center’s workshop.
In return, Francis was to bring Easter eggs and colomba, traditional Italian Easter cake in the shape of a dove, for all, the Vatican had said.
The Casal del Marmo center houses close to 50 inmates, who range in age from 14 to 21. The young people who had their feet washed were chosen from different nationalities and diverse religious backgrounds. Two young women and two Muslims were included in the rite, according to the Vatican.
More than 2,000 cardinals, archbishops, bishops and priests, as well as more than 10,000 of the Roman Catholic faithful, joined the pope in celebrating Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday morning.
Francis urged the priests to be close to their congregations and listen to their everyday concerns, even if those concerns sometimes appear material or mundane.
The priests should be “shepherds who have the smell of their sheep,” he said.
Reaching out to the ‘forgotten’
Francis was installed as pope 10 days ago, having been elected to fill the shoes of Benedict XVI.
Since taking on the role, he has focused on a message of helping the poor and needy.
In his first general audience Wednesday, before crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square, he spoke of how following Christ “means learning to come out of ourselves … in order to meet others, in order to go toward the edges of our existence, to take the first steps towards our brothers and sisters, especially those who are farthest from us, those who are forgotten, those who need understanding, consolation and assistance.”
He also called for an end to the violence in the Central African Republic, where a coalition of rebels ousted President Francois Bozize this week.
All those suffering in the African nation are in his prayers, he said.
“I call for an immediate halt to the violence and looting, and that a political solution to the crisis may be reached as soon as possible so that peace and harmony may be restored in that dear country, which has, for too long, been marked by conflict and division,” he said.
The Holy Week services will culminate on Easter Sunday with the pope’s first “Urbi et Orbi” blessing, directed to the city of Rome and to the world.