Pope Francis washed the feet of a dozen inmates at a maximum security prison on Holy Thursday in a pre-Easter ritual meant to show his willingness to serve the society's most marginal and give them hope. Francis urged the prisoners to help one another out and similarly "be the servant of others."
Francis travelled to the Paliano detention centre, located in a fortress south of Rome, to celebrate the Holy Thursday Mass at the only Italian prison dedicated to housing mafia turncoats.
Nevertheless, many of the inmates are serving lengthy terms: Two of the 12 inmates who participated in the foot-washing ceremony are serving life terms. The remaining 10 are due to be released between 2019 and 2073. Francis also visited two other inmates currently in solitary confinement.
In his homily, Francis reminded the inmates that his gesture of washing their feet re-enacted the revolutionary gesture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples before he was crucified, essentially doing the work of a slave out of love.
"If you can do something, a service for your companions in prison, do it," Francis urged them during his homily. "This is love. This is like washing feet: to be the servant of others."
It's the third Holy Thursday that Francis has spent at a detention centre, part of his longstanding emphasis on ministering to prisoners and the need to give them rehabilitation and hope.
"The Holy Father gave us message not just of hope, but he told us that the love of God is great and is ready to forgive everyone," Prison Director Nadia Cersosimo told Vatican Radio.
Because of the nature of the prison, its inmates and their families, Francis' visit was conducted under unusually strict privacy: Vatican Radio only aired edited excerpts of his homily after the fact, and the Vatican's television service planned edited TV footage. Usually the Pope's activities are covered live by at least Vatican TV and radio, if not independent media.
Paliano has 60 to 70 inmates, including about 50 mafia turncoats. The prison also houses four women and has a special ward for tuberculosis-infected inmates.
The Vatican said three of the 12 inmates who had their feet washed are women and one is a Muslim who is due to be baptised a Christian in June. Prisoners prepared cakes as gifts and offered the Pope zucchini and cucumbers from the prison's organic garden.
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