ROME — In what has become a vintage touch of his pastoral style, Pope Francis once again celebrated the Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper at a prison, where he washed the feet of 12 inmates, men and women, from Nigeria, Congo, Ecuador, Brazil, and Italy — as well as one toddler.
“Jesus never tires of loving,” Francis told the 300 inmates gathered in the chapel of Rome’s Rebibbia prison, famed as the place where Pope St. John Paul II visited in 1983 to forgive his attempted assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca.
“He loves each one of us, to the point that he gave his life for us,” Francis said on Thursday. “Jesus never tires of loving, forgiving, embracing us.”
The pontiff quoted a passage from the Gospel that says God remembers and loves “even those forgotten by their mothers.”
Before entering the chapel, the pontiff greeted 150 of the 2,100 men and women held in the detention center located on the outskirts of Rome. Among the prisoners gathered in the Church of Our Father were 15 mothers with their children.
Most of those taking part had tears in their eyes during the ceremony.
“I’ll wash the feet of 12 of your brothers and sisters who represent all of you here today,” Francis said, after explaining that the rite commemorates the example of Jesus who washed the feet of his apostles on Holy Thursday, ahead of his death on the Cross the next day.
“The love that Jesus has for us is so big,” the pope said, “that he became a slave to serve us, to take care of us, to purify us.”
“I, too, have the need to be cleansed by the Lord, so please, during this Mass, pray for me, so that God cleans my dirt, so that I, too, can be your slave, at the service of the people, as Jesus was,” Francis said.
The Argentinian pontiff is fond of choosing a non-traditional setting to perform this gesture of service.
On the first Holy Thursday after his election as pope, Francis washed the feet of 12 young people, not all of them Catholic, while he celebrated Mass at Rome’s juvenile detention center Casal del Marmo.
In 2014, Francis visited the center “Don Gnocchi” for the elderly and disabled. On that occasion, the participants in the foot-washing ritual ranged in age from 16 to 86, and several were in wheelchairs with their feet swollen or disfigured.
While he was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio used to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass outside of the local cathedral, choosing to do so instead in detention centers, hospitals, hospices, and rehabilitation centers for drug addicts.
Francis isn’t the first pope to celebrate a Mass at a prison; Benedict XVI, for example, did so in 2007. He is, however, the first one in modern history to celebrate a Holy Thursday liturgy outside either St. Peter’s Basilica or the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
The fact that Francis once again included women in the ritual may stir new umbrage among tradition-minded Catholics, who point out that Church rules technically specify that only men should take part because Jesus’s disciples on Holy Thursday were all male.