Pope Francis ignores church law restricting foot-washing rite to men
ROME — Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of a dozen inmates, including two young women, at a juvenile detention center in a surprising departure from church rules that restrict the Holy Thursday ritual to men.
The Mass was held in the Casal del Marmo facility in Rome, where 46 young men and women are detained. Many are Gypsies or North African migrants, and the 12 selected for the foot-washing rite reportedly included Orthodox and Muslim detainees.
Because the inmates were mostly minors — the facility houses inmates ages 14 to 21 — the Vatican and Italian Justice Ministry limited media access. Vatican Radio carried the Mass live, and in his homily 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.”
Previous popes carried out the foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday in Rome's grand St. John Lateran basilica. The 12 people chosen for the ritual were always priests to represent the 12 apostles whose feet Christ washed during the Last Supper before his crucifixion.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would celebrate the ritual foot-washing in jails, hospitals or hospices — part of his ministry to the poorest and most marginalized of society. He would often involve women: photographs from his days in Buenos Aires show him washing the feet of a woman holding her newborn child in her arms.
That Francis would include women in his inaugural Holy Thursday Mass as pope, however, was remarkable given current liturgical rules that restrict the ritual to men.
Canon lawyer Edward Peters, an adviser to the Holy See's top court, noted in a blog that the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1988 sent a letter to bishops making clear that “The washing of the feet of chosen men ... represents the service and charity of Christ who came ‘not to be served, but to serve.' ” Peters noted that bishops over the years have successfully petitioned Rome for an exemption to allow women to participate, but that the law on the issue is clear.
“By disregarding his own law in this matter, Francis violates, of course, no divine directive,” Peters wrote Thursday. “What he does do, I fear, is set a questionable example,” particularly as it regards adherence to liturgical rules.