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ROME – After ten years, Pope Francis returned Thursday to the same juvenile prison on the outskirts of Rome where he celebrated his first Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday in 2013, once again washing the feet of a diverse set of 12 young inmates.
As opposed to a decade ago, Pope Francis arrived this time in a wheelchair, reflecting the impact of various health challenges that have hobbled the 86-year-old pontiff. He led the Mass in the prison’s small chapel, before a group of roughly 100 people.
The visit capped a demanding day for Francis, who earlier in the morning presided over the traditional Holy Thursday Chrism Mass, commemorating the institution of the Catholic priesthood, in St. Peter’s Basilica. As has become his custom, Francis presided over the Mass, offering the opening and closing prayers and delivering the homily, but another cleric, in this case Monsignor Diego Ravelli, the master of papal ceremonies, offered the Eucharistic prayers at the altar.
As is his habit in such settings, Francis did not have a prepared text for his homily but rather spoke extemporaneously.
In his brief remarks, Francis said that in the ancient world, washing the feet of guests who arrived after travelling dusty road was the work of a slave, and the disciples of Jesus were puzzled to see him doing the same thing.
“He did it to pay the debt of all of us,” Francis said. “We have to help each other … giving one another a hand is beautiful.”
“In society, we profit from each other … how many injustices [are there], how many people without work, without money to buy what they need? If that’s not me, it’s for the grace of God,” Francis said.
“With this celebration today, Jesus wants to teach us this … Jesus loves us as we are, washes the feet of all us,” the pope said. “I’m going to do the same.”
The pontiff proceeded to wash the feet of twelve residents of the Casal del Marmo, including two young women, a Muslim and a young man of color.
The flurry of activity comes just days after Francis returned to the Vatican from Rome’s Gemelli Hospital, where he spent three nights last week being treated for a bout of bronchitis marked by respiratory difficulties.
It was the second hospitalization for Francis, after his 11-day stay at the Gemelli in 2021 for a colon surgery.
A decade ago, Francis’s choice not to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in St. Peter’s Basilica, but rather to travel to a juvenile prison, was taken as symbolic of the new pope’s desire to reach out to the “existential peripheries” of the modern world.
Among the 12 young people whose feet Francis washed a decade ago were two women and two Muslims, breaking with the custom of popes washing the feet of fellow priests.
In the decade since, Pope Francis consistently has chosen to devote Holy Thursday to visits to prisons, welcome centers for migrants and refugees, and homes for the elderly and at-risk youth.
In operation since 1971, the Casal del Marmo houses roughly 50 youth offenders aged 16 to 21, including several foreigners, and is among the few juvenile detention centers in Italy to contain both male and female inmates. It offers vocational training programs in tailoring, upholstery and carpentry, in addition to a pizzeria; youth involved in the carpentry program prepared a wooden artifact to present to the pope.
Pope Francis led the Mass in a small chapel at the prison, meeting afterwards with inmates in the prison’s gymnasium.
Francis’s connection to the facility predates his first visit in 2013, since the Casal del Marmo is associated with the memory of the veteran Vatican diplomat and former Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. Over the course of his career, Casaroli would often visit the prison and act as an informal chaplain to the inmates, presenting himself simply as “Father Agostino.”
Francis’s admiration for Casaroli is well documented. When the pontiff led a consistory last August to create 20 new cardinals, he extolled Casaroli as a role model, including his devotion to the Casal del Marmo.