ROME — Celebrating the traditional Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual at a prison used to house Mafia turncoats, Pope Francis said the Maundy Thursday ceremony is not “folklore,” but a gesture intended to remember what Jesus himself did.
“God loves like this: Until the end, giving his life for each one of us,” Francis said in his homily. “It’s not easy, because all of us are sinners, we have limits, flaws. Yes, we all know how to love, but not like God loves, without looking at the consequences, until the end.”
The pontiff also said that when he was arriving at the maximum security Palino prison in Rome, there were those who kept screaming: “The pope is coming, the boss of the Church.” Yet, he said, “the boss is Jesus.”
To make evident how great his love is, the pontiff said, “He who was the boss, who was God, washed the feet of his disciples.”
“God is grand, good, and loves us as we are,” Francis said off-the-cuff during his homily. “This is not a folklore ceremony. We are remembering what Jesus did.”
The inmates of Paliano prison are known as “collaborators of justice,” meaning members and associates of organized crime groups who are cooperating with Italy’s anti-mafia forces in exchange for reduced sentences.
During the Mass, known as the Lord’s Last Supper, Francis washed the feet of 12 inmates. The Vatican released very little information on who they are, as the visit has been described as “strictly private.”
The Vatican did say, however, three of them were women, one a Muslim who’s converting to Catholicism and will be baptized in June. One of them is Argentinian, another from Albania, and the rest Italian. Two have been sentenced to life in prison, and the rest will be released between 2019 and 2073.
The Paliano prison is located some 45 miles from Rome, in the diocese of Palestrina.
There are 70 inmates currently in the prison, and Francis greeted all of them, including those living in a special ward for tuberculosis-infected inmates.
Prisoners prepared crosses made with wood from olive trees, traditional cakes as gifts and offered the pope zucchini, cucumbers and other goods from the prison’s organic garden.
This is the third time the Argentine pontiff has celebrated the Holy Thursday Mass at a prison, picking up on a tradition he developed when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
During the first year of his pontificate, he headed this ceremony at the juvenile detention center “Casal del Marmo.” In 2014, Pope Francis held the Holy Thursday Mass at the Don Gnocchi center for the disabled.
In 2015 he once again went to a prison on the outskirts of Rome, Rebibbia, where he washed the feet of 12 inmates, men and women, from Nigeria, Congo, Ecuador, Brazil, and Italy – as well as one toddler.
Last year, he visited a center for asylum seekers in Castelnuovo di Porto, a city just north of Rome, where he washed the feet of refugees, who included Muslims, Hindus, and Coptic Orthodox Christians.
Beyond the Maundy Thursday tradition, Pope Francis has made several appeals intended to shine a light over the conditions prisoners live in, visiting jails in most of his foreign trips, including in the United Sates, where he visited a detention facility in Philadelphia.
During the Holy Year of Mercy, one of the final major events was a Mass celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica with over 1,000 inmates from all over the world.
In an interview published on Thursday, Pope Francis explained where his emphasis on reaching out to inmates comes from: “The Gospel passage on the universal judgment says: ‘I was a prisoner and you visited me,'” Francis told the Italian newspaper La Reppublica. “This is Jesus’ mandate for all of us, but especially the bishop who is father of everyone.”
Talking about prisoners, the pope said “Some say: ‘They are guilty,'” the pope said. “I respond with Jesus’ words: ‘Whoever is not guilty, throw the first stone.’ Let’s look inside ourselves and we will come to see our own guilt. And then the heart will become more human.”
On Friday, he will participate in the liturgy marking the Lord’s Passion in St. Peter’s Basilica. This is one of the few occasions in which the pope does not deliver a homily. Later in the day he’ll lead the torch-lit Way of the Cross at Rome’s Colosseum.
On Saturday night he’ll lead the Easter vigil at the basilica, and on Sunday, out in St. Peter’s Square, he’ll lead the Easter Mass and deliver the Urbi et Orbi blessing, to the city of Rome and to the world.