VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis washed the feet of a dozen inmates at a prison near Rome in a Holy Thursday ritual that symbolizes humility and service and highlights his papacy's attention to those on society's margins.
He arrived in a motorcade that included Italian police cars at the prison in Civitavecchia, a port city, 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Rome. The ritual was closed to the public for security reasons and to protect the privacy of the inmates.
But afterwards, the Vatican said the pope performed the foot-washing, following Jesus' example, “in a sign of love inspired by love” aimed at service and humility. The 12 inmates included men and women of various ages and of different nationalities, it said.
Symbolizing the number of Jesus’ apostles, the twelve sat on chairs on a raised platform. The pontiff washed, dried, then kissed the feet of each of the inmates, all who were wearing masks against the spread of COVID-19. Some inmates leaned over to kiss the pope’s hands in gratitude.
In the prison chapel, the pope celebrated a Mass attended by inmates, some prison staff and Italy's justice minister, the Vatican said in a statement.
The Vatican did not say what accommodations might have been made to enable the pope, who has been hobbled of late by a knee-ligament problem, to perform the foot-washing ceremony. For years, Francis has also suffered from sciatica, a nerve inflammation that can cause back and leg pain.
Earlier, during a Holy Thursday Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Francis advised the 1,800 priests in attendance not to focus on worldly concerns such as power or status but exhorted them to “serve, with a clear conscience, the holy and faithful people of God.”
Francis made no reference to decades of scandals involving Catholic priests who sexually abused children and were often transferred from parish to parish by bishops who tried to avoid embarrassment rather than protect minors.
During the Holy Thursday Mass, large urns of oil are blessed for use in ceremonies in churches in the Rome area. When Francis went to bless the oil by breathing into it, an aide helped him rise from his chair and walk toward the silver urn. At the end of the ceremony, Francis descended the steps down from the altar clinging to an aide's arm, and even while assisted limped his way out of the basilica.
Holy Week, which draws hundreds of thousands of faithful to the Vatican, began with Palm Sunday Mass on April 10 in St. Peter's Square and culminates this Sunday at Easter, when the faithful mark the resurrection of Jesus.
This year, the Good Friday torch-lit Way of the Cross procession in Rome returns to its traditional venue at the ancient Colosseum after a two-year absence due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Vatican has invited a Russian woman and a Ukrainian woman, who work together at a Rome hospital, to carry a cross together during the procession. That has angered some Ukrainians, including the country's ambassador to the Holy See and the archbishop of Kyiv. Their objections center on whether such a gesture, implying reconciliation, is suitable, given Russia's invasion of its neighbor and its ongoing war against the country's people.
The Vatican is still going ahead with the procession's lineup of participants, who take turns carrying a lightweight cross during the procession, which is presided over by the pontiff and recalls Jesus' death by crucifixion.