Last week Pope Francis chose to carry out the Holy Thursday ritual of “washing feet” in a special way by presiding at the mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Casal del Marmo Youth Detention Centre in Rome.
Casal del Marmo is a place for youth who have run afoul of the law, mostly related to drug abuse. Ten girls and 40 boys live at the centre and took part in the mass. Interestingly, the 12 chosen to have their feet washed were not all Catholic (or men). Most of the residents at the facility are Muslim. The Pope met with the youth after mass and shared gifts of Easter eggs and columba, traditional Italian Easter cake in the shape of a dove.
Pope Francis expressed wishes that the Holy Thursday mass should be simple. And what simpler gesture could he provide the Church than washing the feet of teenagers who have gotten themselves into trouble? Visiting the teens at the detention center didn’t send a message that the world would regard as powerful. The Pope didn’t even get a great photo op.
Then why? Why these teens? Mostly because they are forgotten and vulnerable. When imprisoned, people lose their freedom. And most of the time, we simply forget about them. Without a Charles Manson or other “behind bars” prison documentary now and again, we forget about people who spend endless days in prison cells.
Teens who end up in a reformatory often lack family structure in their early years and for them, being and feeling forgotten can be overwhelming. The Pope’s visit can be even more overwhelming. One resident ran his fingers through his hair and remarked, “The Pope? Here?” Clearly, it’s not just that someone of the Pope’s stature came to visit, but that anyone at all visits is more often than not, a rarity.
On the night before he died, Jesus ate with his disciples. He then began to wash their feet. It should be noted that this task was traditionally reserved for the lowest of all the servants. Some servants would even refuse to do it. After all, livestock roamed the marketplace and droppings combined with the dust from unpaved roads made sandal-strapped feet quite filthy.
The story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet is from John’s gospel, where Jesus is always depicted as fully knowing all that is going to happen to him. With each action, Jesus is in full control.
So, it follows that Jesus knows not only his betrayer, Judas, sits with him, but he also knows that he’s washing the feet of the disciples who head for the hills at the first sign of trouble. (Save one, Peter, who follows Jesus all the way to the high priest’s courtyard only then to deny even knowing who Jesus is.)
It would be easy for Jesus to forget about these men who all too easily forget about Jesus. But instead he gets on his hands and knees and easily washes the filthiest parts of their bodies.
The Pope has a similar intention. St. Ignatius reminded his followers to be “men for others.” Our Jesuit Pope is hoping to impart with his gesture a message that we all need to wash feet. Those who’ve had their feet washed at Casal del Marmo will in turn be asked to “wash feet” as they live their lives — to be forgiving, to be servants, to care for the needs of the most vulnerable.
The Pope’s visit to the young men and women at the detention center implies hope for their future. And hope that through his own example, Pope Francis might create more foot washers in the world — those he served at Casal del Marmo and each one of us who needs to remember the least among us who we have forgotten.