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Pope washes feet of young detainees in ritual

Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 inmates at a juvenile detention facility in Rome, including some who were Orthodox and Muslim detainees.

OSSERVATORE ROMANO/REUTERS

Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 inmates at a juvenile detention facility in Rome, including some who were Orthodox and Muslim detainees.

ROME — Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of a dozen inmates at a juvenile detention center in a Holy Thursday ritual that he celebrated for years as archbishop and is continuing now that he is pope. Two of the 12 were young women, a remarkable choice given that the church’s current liturgical law says only men should participate.

The Mass was held in the Casal del Marmo facility in Rome, where 46 young men and women currently are detained. Many of them are Gypsies or North African migrants, and the 12 selected for the foot-washing rite included Orthodox and Muslim detainees, news reports said.

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Because the inmates were mostly minors, the Vatican and Italian Justice Ministry limited media access inside. But Vatican Radio carried the Mass live, and Francis told the detainees that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion in a gesture of love and service.

‘‘This is a symbol, it is a sign — washing your feet means I am at your service,’’ Francis told the youngsters. ‘‘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.’’

Later, the Vatican released a limited video of the ritual, showing Francis washing black feet, white feet, male feet, female feet, and even a foot with tattoos. Kneeling on the floor as the youngsters sat above him, the pontiff poured water from a silver chalice over each foot, dried it with a simple cotton towel, and then bent over to kiss each one.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would celebrate the ritual foot-washing in jails, hospitals, or hospices as part of his ministry to the poorest and most marginalized of society. It is a message that he is continuing now that he is pope, saying he wants a church ‘‘for the poor.’’

Previous popes would carry out the foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday in Rome’s grand St. John Lateran basilica. The 12 people chosen for the ritual would always be priests to represent Christ’s 12 apostles.

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