Pope leads Holy Thursday service in Vatican basilica

VATICAN CITY — In a Holy Thursday ritual symbolizing humility, Pope Francis washed and dried the feet of a dozen residents of a Rome juvenile prison, assuring them of their dignity and telling them “any of us” can fall into sin.

The Casal del Marmo facility on the outskirts of Rome is the same juvenile prison where Francis performed the first feet-washing ritual of his papacy, demonstrating his belief that the Catholic Church should give attention to people living on society’s margins.

On Thursday, Francis repeated the ritual on 10 male and two female residents who are serving time at the facility. He leaned over and poured water on one foot of each, then used a white towel to gently pat the foot dry before kissing it.

When Francis looked up at them in turn to smile, they shook his hand and kissed it. Many of the young people whispered into the pope’s ear, and he chatted with them briefly in return.

The ritual recalls the foot-washing Jesus performed on his 12 apostles at their last supper together before he would be taken away to be crucified.

Jesus “washes all our feet,” Francis told several dozen residents assembled in the prison chapel. “He knows all our weaknesses,’’ the pope said in a completely improvised homily.

Among the 12, six were minors while the others had become adults while serving their sentences. The dozen included a Muslim from Senegal, as well as young people from Romania, Russia and Croatia, the Vatican said.

Francis explained that the foot-washing was “not folklore” but a “gesture which announces how we should be toward one another.” He lamented that “others profit off each other, (there is) so much injustice…so many ugly things.”

Still, he said, “any one of us can slip” and fall from grace. The foot-washing “confers on us the dignity of being sinners.” The lesson, he added, should be to “help one another, so life becomes better.”

The pontiff, who has a chronic knee problem, navigated the small spaces of the chapel either unaided or with the help of a cane, although he used a wheel chair to leave after the roughly 90-minute appearance.

On Saturday, Francis was discharged from a Rome hospital where he was treated for bronchitis. The Vatican said at the time that he would carry out the complete Holy Week schedule, including the Good Friday late-night Way of the Cross procession at Rome’s Colosseum and Easter Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square.

Earlier Thursday, he presided over Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica as part of his stamina-testing Holy Week appointments.

At Thursday’s basilica Mass, dozens of rows of priests in simple white cassocks sat in front of rank-and-file Catholics in the packed church.

Francis used the homily as a pep talk to priests, after decades of scandals involving sex abuse of children by clergy caused many faithful to lose trust in their pastors.

The pope didn’t cite the scandals or church hierarchy cover-ups. But, he spoke of “crisis” affecting priests.

“Sooner or later, we all experience disappointment, frustration and our own weaknesses,’’ Francis said. “Our ideals seem to recede in the face of reality, a certain force of habit takes over, and the difficulties that once seemed unimaginable appear to challenge our fidelity.”

The basilica ceremony traditionally includes the blessing of ointments and priests’ renewal of promises made when they were ordained to the priesthood.

Highlighting the spirit of renewal that the pope indicated the priesthood needs, added to the ointments at this year’s Mass was bergamot perfume that came from trees in southern Italy on land confiscated by authorities from mobsters.

In off-the-cuff remarks during the homily, Francis admonished priests not to “forget being pastors of the people.”

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