Pope, looking strong, washes feet of 12 women at Rome prison from his wheelchair
Posted: March 29, 2024 - 6:07am

Pope Francis celebrates the Holy Chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican, Thursday, March 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

ROME (AP) — Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 women inmates at a Rome prison during a Holy Thursday ritual meant to emphasize his vocation of service and humility.

The 87-year-old Francis performed the ritual from his wheelchair, after recent ailments have compounded his mobility problems. The Rebibbia prison venue was outfitted to accommodate his needs: The women sat on stools on a raised-up platform, enabling the pope to move down the line with ease from his wheelchair without having to strain himself.

Many of the women wept as Francis washed their feet, gently pouring water over one bared foot and patting it dry with a small towel. He finished the gesture by kissing each foot, often looking up to the woman with a smile.

The Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony is a hallmark of every Holy Week and recalls the foot-washing Jesus performed on his 12 apostles at their last supper together before he was crucified.

Francis revolutionized the ritual for the Vatican by insisting, from his very first Holy Thursday as pope in 2013, to include women and people of other faiths among the 12. Previously, popes performed the ritual on Catholic men only at a Rome basilica.

Francis has traveled each year to a prison, refugee center or youth detention facility to emphasize his belief that a priest’s vocation is to serve especially those most on the margins. In his brief homily, delivered off-the-cuff, Francis explained the meaning of the gesture.

“Jesus humiliates himself,” Francis said. “With this gesture, he makes us understand what he had said: ‘I am not here to be served, but to serve.’”

“He teaches us the path of service,” Francis said.

Francis appeared in good shape at the prison, even after presiding over a long Mass earlier in the day in St. Peter's Basilica. During the morning liturgy, he delivered a lengthy homily with a set of marching orders to Rome-based priests at the start of a busy few days leading to Easter.

Francis has been hobbled by a long bout of respiratory problems this winter and in recent weeks has asked an aide to read aloud his remarks to spare him the strain. On Palm Sunday, he skipped his homily altogether.

But Francis seemed energized by his visit to the Rebibbia prison, where he was given a basket of vegetables grown in the prison garden as well as two liturgical stoles embroidered by the inmates.

Francis, for his part, regifted a framed image of the Madonna that he had been given, saying as soon as he received it he thought of the women at Rebibbia. He also gave a big chocolate Easter egg to the young son of one of the inmates.

Even with Holy Thursday events wrapped up, Francis has a busy few days coming up that will test his stamina.

On Friday, he is due to travel at night to the Colosseum for the Way of the Cross procession re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion. On Saturday, he presides over an evening Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica followed a few hours later by Easter Sunday Mass in the piazza and his big noontime Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) speech highlighting global conflicts and disasters afflicting humanity.