Pope breaks church tradition, washes women's feet
In his most significant break with tradition yet, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of two young women at a juvenile detention centre — a surprising departure from church rules that restrict the Holy Thursday ritual to men.
No pope has ever washed the feet of a woman before, and Francis’ gesture sparked a debate among some conservatives and liturgical purists, who lamented he had set a “questionable example.”
Liberals have welcomed the move as a sign of greater inclusiveness in the church.
Speaking to the young offenders, including Muslims and Orthodox Christians, Francis said 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 group, aged 14 to 21, at the Casal del Marmo detention facility in Rome.
“Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us,” the pope said. “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.”
In a video released by the Vatican, the 76-year-old Francis was shown kneeling on the stone floor as he poured water from a silver chalice over the feet of a dozen youths: black, white, male, female, even feet with tattoos.
Then, after drying each one with a cotton towel, he bent over and kissed it. Previous popes carried out the Holy Thursday rite in Rome’s grand St John Lateran basilica, choosing 12 priests to represent the 12 apostles whose feet Christ washed during the Last Supper before his crucifixion.
Before he became pope, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio celebrated the ritual foot-washing in jails, hospitals or hospices. He often involved women. Photographs show him washing the feet of a woman holding her newborn child in her arms.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev Federico Lombardi, said he didn’t want to wade into a canonical dispute over the matter. However, he noted that in a “grand solemn celebration” of the rite, only men are included because Christ washed the feet of his 12 apostles, all of whom were male.
“Here, the rite was for a small, unique community made up also of women,” Lombardi wrote in an email.
Others on the more liberal side of the debate welcomed the example Francis set.
“The pope’s washing the feet of women is hugely significant because including women in this part of the Holy Thursday Mass has been frowned on - and even banned– in some dioceses,” said the Rev James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of “The Jesuit Guide.”
“It shows the all-embracing love of Christ, who ministered to all he met: man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Gentile.”