Pope to prisoners: I’m at your service

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Washing the feet of 12 young prisoners, Pope Francis breaks tradition to fulfill his call for the Church to 'come out of herself'

SYMBOL OF SERVICE. This handout picture released by the Vatican press office shows Pope Francis (R) kissing the feet of a young offender after washing them during a Mass at the church of the Casal del Marmo youth prison on the outskirts of Rome as part of Holy Thursday. Photo by AFP/Osservatore Romano

MANILA, Philippines – In a small prison chapel, Pope Francis performed the customary Washing of the Feet ritual on young prisoners on Holy Thursday, March 28, breaking tradition again to help the Church “come out of herself.”

In an unprecedented move, the Pope included women and Muslims in the ritual.

“It is the example set by Our Lord. It’s important for him to wash (the apostles’) 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,” Pope Francis told juvenile offenders at the Casal del Marmo in Rome.

The Mass took place at 5:30 pm Thursday in Rome, or 12:30 am Friday, March 29, in the Philippines.

In his homily, the Pope characteristically went off the cuff, and addressed some 40 young prisoners in simple language.

Is washing each other’s feet, for instance, an everyday task? Of course not, the Pope said. “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 favor, do it!”

He added: “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 you too must help us and help each other, always. And thus in helping each other we will do good for each other.”

MASS WITH PRISONERS. Pope Francis celebrates Holy Thursday Mass at the Casal del Marmo prison in Rome. Photo from news.va's Facebook page

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said many of the participants broke down in tears at the ceremony, which was open only to Vatican media. One young man had to be replaced at the last moment because he was too overcome with emotion.

Video footage from the ceremony showed the pope pouring water over the feet – one of them with tattoos – bending down to kiss them and looking each of the 12 prisoners in the eye before moving on.

Lombardi said that while this was the first time a pope had washed women’s feet, Francis had performed this type of ceremony in his native Argentina many times before becoming pope including in jails, hospitals, and old people’s homes.

The Holy Thursday ceremony is usually held in a basilica in the city center and commemorates the gesture of humility believed to have been performed by Jesus Christ before his death to his 12 disciples at their last meal.

Popes performing the ritual have usually washed the feet of priests.

‘Clear test’ of good priests

Earlier on Thursday, Francis celebrated Chrism Mass, another Holy Thursday ritual during which the bishop blesses holy oil in the presence of other priests.

In this Mass, the Bishop of Rome discussed a “clear test” of good priests: “the way his people are anointed.” Francis added: “When our people are anointed with the oil of gladness, it is obvious: for example, when they leave Mass looking as if they have heard the Good News.” (Watch the video below.)

He therefore urged priests to “touch their daily lives” when preaching to people. He also told them to perceive desire for goodness “in every request, even those requests that are inconvenient and at times purely material or downright banal.” 

“We need to ‘go out,’ then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the ‘outskirts’ where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord,” the Pope said.

Without “going out,” as Francis said, “some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart, and become in some sense collectors of antiques or novelties – instead of being shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep,’ shepherds in the midst of their flock, fishers of men.” 

‘Come out of self’

The Pope has consistently criticized a “self-referential Church” that doesn’t “come out of herself.”

This, in fact, is what he said in the cardinals’ closed-door meetings before he was elected pontiff. In his speech published by the Vatican on Wednesday, March 27, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said preaching the Gospel “presupposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself.”

“The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but alos to existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery,” Bergoglio said.

In his attempt to reach out to people, the first Latin American pontiff has struck the world with his informal style. 

Before his inaugural Mass, for example, he rode an open-air popemobile and occasionally stopped to kiss children and also a sick man.

CHARISMATIC PONTIFF. Before his homily about care for creation, Pope Francis stops to kiss a sick man during his inaugural procession. Photo from Vatican Radio's Facebook page

In his first clarion call, he exhorted the world to protect creation, especially the poor. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com