From ritual to reality: Pope Francis washes feet at women's prison

Pope Francis, appearing in good health, embraced a gesture of humility by washing and kissing the feet of 12 female prisoners this Thursday, initiating a series of poignant ceremonies leading up to Easter. At 87 years old, the Pope's commitment to these traditional rituals underscores a deeply eventful Holy Week.

Publication: 29.03.2024 - 15:10
From ritual to reality: Pope Francis washes feet at women's prison
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Traveling to the Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome, Pope Francis presided over a Holy Thursday Mass in the open air of the female section, attended by inmates, guards, chaplains, and officials. Despite his use of a wheelchair, the Pope personally washed and kissed the right foot of 12 women, mirroring Jesus' act of humility with his apostles at the Last Supper.

The ceremony, which moved some of the inmates to tears, was particularly significant as it included women from various nationalities, held for different offences in one of Italy's largest female prisons, which houses about 370 inmates.

Breaking with tradition, Francis is the first pope to conduct the foot-washing ceremony outside of church settings, preferring locations like prisons, homes for the elderly, or hospices—a practice he began as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Remarkably, he is also the first to include women, atheists, Muslims, and other non-Christians in the ritual, a departure from his predecessors who limited the ceremony to men, typically priests, within the walls of St. Peter's Basilica or the Basilica of St. John in Lateran.

During his short, improvised homily, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of serving others, assuring the inmates that regardless of their stories, they are always welcomed by the Lord with open arms, ready to offer forgiveness.

Despite recent health challenges, including bouts of bronchitis and influenza that led him to scale back his public appearances, the Pope showed vigor and strength throughout his visit. Upon his arrival, an aide navigated his wheelchair through a small crowd, with many inmates eagerly reaching out to touch him.

Nadia Fontana, the prison director, likened the Pope's visit to "a ray of sunlight" for the institution. In a touching exchange, inmates presented the Pope with items crafted in prison workshops, including liturgical vestments.

Francis also stood during parts of the service and personally greeted the prisoners, including a three-year-old boy living with his incarcerated mother.

Earlier on Thursday, Pope Francis conducted a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, where he delivered a lengthy homily and added his own improvisations, further showcasing his robust condition.

The Pope's schedule for the remainder of Holy Week includes presiding over a "Passion of the Lord" service on Good Friday, attending a Via Crucis procession at the Colosseum, leading an Easter Vigil service on Saturday, and delivering his "Urbi et Orbi" message from St. Peter's central balcony to the world on Easter Sunday.

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