Pope Francis has washed the feet of 12 young offenders, including two girls, at a Rome prison in an unprecedented version of an ancient Easter ritual as he pushes for the Catholic Church to reach out to the needy.
The ceremony on Thursday was the first of its type performed by a pope in a prison and the first that included women in a rite which commemorates a gesture of humility that Christians believe Jesus Christ performed for his 12 apostles before his death.
“We need to go out… to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters,” the 76-year-old Argentinian said at a mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Thursday.
“It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord,” said Francis, who became the first pope from Latin America a fortnight ago.
The pope has since made his mark as a staunch advocate for the poor and marginalised.
Francis I has called for the Roman Catholic Church, which has been shaken by multiple scandals in recent years, to be more open and socially active as he begins his pontificate.
On Thursday he evoked the use holy oil used to anoint priests during their ordination, saying it was meant “for the edges” of society – “for the poor, prisoners and the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone”.
The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was known in Argentina for his strong social advocacy during his homeland’s devastating economic crisis in recent years, his own humble lifestyle and his outreach in poor neighbourhoods.
Francis’s decision to celebrate a mass commemorating Christ’s Last Supper in the Casal del Marmo prison in northwest Rome later on Thursday, rather than the traditional venue of Rome’s St John Lateran’s Basilica, suggests a shake-up for the Church’s keenly observed Easter rituals.
The washing of the feet is a tradition based on the belief that Christ washed the feet of his apostles on the evening of their final meal together before his death.
The Vatican has said the pope will celebrate mass in the prison with 35 male and 11 female offenders, aged from 14 to 21.
Most of the inmates at the institute are foreign-born and Muslim or atheist.
The 12 prisoners who will have their feet washed will be chosen from different nationalities and religious confessions.
It is not clear whether any of the inmates chosen to take part in the washing ceremony are female – a gesture that would rile traditionalists because of the belief that the disciples were all male.