March 28th, 2013
01:25 PM ET

Why is the pope washing prisoners’ feet?

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Editor
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(CNN) — In ancient times, when roads were bad and footwear was worse, the washing of a guest's feet was a required sign of hospitality. Today when someone comes to your home, you’re more likely to offer to take their coat and bring them a beverage rather then have the help fetch a basin to refresh their worn feet.

The gesture of a servant's washing a newly arrived guest’s feet is sprinkled throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures. That the characters in question were respectable, hospitable, and well off would have been culturally recognizable to earlier readers. In the Christian tradition, one story of feet washing entirely changed the paradigm.

In the Biblical accounts of the Easter story, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a donkey to adoring crowds. Just a few days later he gathers his 12 disciples for what would be their Last Supper before he was crucified.

According to the Gospel of John, after everyone has reclined at table before the meal, Jesus, dressed as a servant, washes their feet. The disciple Peter recoils at the sight of his master taking on the role of a servant.

Jesus then explains to them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:15 NRSV)

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Christians have carried on this practice of role reversal for the past two millennia, particularly during Holy Week. On Holy Thursday believers commemorate the Last Supper, where after he washed the disciples' feet, Jesus went on to institute the practice of Communion – breaking bread to symbolize the sacrifice of his body for his followers to atone for their sins, the core of Christian belief.

Thursday in Rome, Pope Francis continued a long papal tradition when he participated in the foot-washing rite.

In a radical departure from tradition, Francis said Holy Thursday Mass not at the ornately appointed Basilica of St. John Lateran, but in a small chapel with nearly 50 teenage boys and girls at Casal del Marmo Penitential Institute for Minors, a juvenile detention center. The 76-year-old leader of a more than 1 billion Catholics called up 12 of the young inmates from different nationalities and “diverse religious confessions,” according to the Vatican. Among the group of twelve were two women and two Muslims.

He stooped down before them, one by one, with a basin of water and washed their feet.

Then Pope Benedict washes the feet of clergy.

This is the continuation of a personal custom; when he was Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he famously washed the feet of AIDS patients and drug addicts.

Those who know him are not surprised that on Holy Thursday he looks to the poor and marginalized.

“Really, what he’s doing is very much in character,” said the Rev. Thomas Rosica, who has served as a Vatican spokesman during the papal transition.

Rosica said the timing of the election also factored into why the new pope selected a prison over a cathedral.

“Technically, he couldn’t celebrate the Mass at St. John Lateran because he hasn’t yet taken possession of the cathedral.” But it is a fair assumption that had he wanted to have Mass there, it would have happened.

For several years Rosica lived in the Middle East, where foot-washing is still done, "and it’s the lowliest person in the house who does that as a sign of great respect.”

“There’s something extremely intimate about that, when you’re touching someone’s feet,” he said.

Rosica said that with the ceremony, the pope is applying biblical texts to concrete actions.

Pia de Solenni, an ethicist and moral theologian, said the significance of Jesus Christ washing the disciples' feet resounds over the centuries: “At that time and now there’s that sense of hierarchy, or that clergy are set apart, that they’re somehow preferred. What Jesus is teaching and what I think is the authentic understanding of the priesthood in the Catholic Church is that the priest - your teacher, your leader - is first and foremost a servant,” she said.

“That’s really turning the worldly understanding of who a leader is upside down.”

The ceremony for the young prisoners is another in a growing list change brought by Francis. After his election this month, he refused the papal limo and rode the bus with the other cardinals.

On Tuesday the Vatican announced Francis had opted to stay in room 201 at Case Santa Marta, the Vatican guest house, instead of moving into the palatial papal apartment.

For his inaugural Mass and again on Palm Sunday, he opted for an open-air "popemobile," foregoing the safety-glass-enclosed version that became the vehicle of choice for public processions following an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

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The changes have, in part, led to overflow crowds for the new pope’s public appearances and headaches for his security detail; he has shown he is willing to break out of the bubble to greet the faithful and kiss seemingly every baby in sight.

“He’s making a very special place for the poor, the disenfranchised,” Rosica said. “He’s kind of taken the world by storm by the symbols and the signals he’s given."

Monsignor Kevin Irwin, a professor at the Catholic University of America, told CNN from Rome that foot-washing "has always been - for priests, bishops and popes throughout the centuries - a role reversal. That is to say, those who are marginalized become center stage and the one who is usually center stage washes their feet."

Irwin said Francis’ choice to wash prisoners' feet fits in with a broader narrative of the new pope’s journey. Whereas his predecessor, Benedict, came to the papacy by way of the scholarly library and high Vatican offices (Rosica called him "the Mozart of theologians") Francis “has a pastor’s heart."

“In that sense he’s probably more of a journeyman than he is a highly accomplished scholar," Irwin said. "In the process we’ll all get on board with the journeyman." And journeymen, he said, "make the world work.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Jesus • Pope Benedict XVI • Pope Francis • Pope John Paul II • Vatican

soundoff (358 Responses)
  1. Steve

    I personally don't believe, but gosh he is making me want to be a catholic 🙂

    March 28, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
    • rocketscientist

      Well, Steve, I am Catholic, and, after seeing so much vitriol, bashing, and outright bigotry on these boards and other news boards, I have to say, I'm surprised anyone would say or admit that they'd want to be Catholic here. Anyway, thanks for the sentiment. If you're actually interested in becoming Catholic, stop by your local church and ask for some info. They have RCIA (I believe that's what it's called) classes you can take if you decide you want to convert. If not, that's cool too. Have a great Easter! : )

      March 28, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
    • Redoran

      That is because you wish to smell and wash little boy's feet. Correct!

      March 28, 2013 at 7:00 pm |
    • vincastar

      Redoran, Somehow I doubt a lot of perverts say gosh and smiley...I would think that would be more he** yeah and wink face...considering the perverts I have meet.

      April 2, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
  2. Redoran

    Apparently, this pope relishes the Stink of dirty boys feet. I do not see him washing and kissing the feet of female patrons. Folks, this is total perversion. Catholics will answer for their Perversions!

    March 28, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • Chris

      Actually the pope did wash the feet of two women today as it states in the article..."The 76-year-old leader of a more than 1 billion Catholics called up 12 of the young inmates from different nationalities and “diverse religious confessions,” according to the Vatican. Among the group of twelve were two women and two Muslims."

      March 28, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  3. Spam

    Ahh so the pope found a way to touch men w/o getting in trouble

    March 28, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • Redoran

      Ye, he wishes to wash little boy's feet.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • Redoran

      Notice he has never smelt nor washed the feet of little girls, or women for that matter!

      March 28, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
    • chrissy

      @Spam – Pope does not do that, Mohammed does.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  4. Oh PLEASE

    You know what? Wash your own feet. No one should have to wash your nasty feet for you.

    March 28, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • tehdpr

      I'm not Catholic, but was raised Christian and am now agnostic/atheistic. I'm familiar with this tradition, though I can't remember the last time I heard about the pope observing this tradition... it's been almost 20 years, I think. I'm glad Francis has done as he has, in his way. He continues to strike me as someone who understands and wants to live the good lessons the gospels have to offer. I have some hope now, for Catholicism... some.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
    • tehdpr

      Ack... sorry Oh Please... that wasn't at all meant to be a reply to you. To you, I was going to say, this is a cultural tradition... do some reading, and you might see the value in it.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:05 pm |
  5. The Central Scrutizer

    Belief Blog, you are as one. Each comment, each insult and each humorous pass. You are as one.

    The truth of the energy you seek is not found in the heavens, nor in the core being. Many of you will understand at some fundamental level that there is only the fabric which we weave together. Dark here, light there, ornate yet empty. The tapestry will be as one. The vast interconnected cosmos does not escape us. One cannot not have one with the other.

    Logic-Tight compartments, each at conflict with each other. Hence the parallel philosophy of unity. We are all but one, though each of use builds different structures for our stuff. Pain vs Love. Logic vs. Superstition, Freedom vs. Security….

    Open your mind and share your mind with death.

    March 28, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
    • CS

      "Scrutinizer" I must become one with spelling.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
  6. maggiemae

    Nothing like a good Christian story to bring out the nay-sayers. Read your bible......it is all true and DID happen.

    Jesus is the Way, the Truth, The Life. Remember these words, you will need them some day.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
    • ME II


      March 28, 2013 at 5:06 pm |
    • Sensible

      @maggiemae we have read the bible...this is how you become a naysayer. I assure you those words will have the same value in the future as they do today. The value of a penny with a hole in it.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • Madtown

      Read your bible......it is all true
      I see. Pity those unfortunate humans who have no access to christianity, and have no idea what the bible is. Won't they also need those words some day? What will happen to them?

      March 28, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • TV_1

      God has a plan for salvation for God's whole creation... not just our little part of it.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
    • sam

      Even the part where god kills all the firstborn? What a jerk!

      March 28, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
  7. Daniel

    I may vomit. That is disgusting. I don't touch feet. This guy must enjoy doing it, and I am sure his dingy enjoyed it, too.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      yeah, you totally miss the lesson

      March 28, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
    • chrissy

      After Mohammed did Aisha, he cleaned her with a bottle brush.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
  8. GlamRocker

    He seems like a nice person.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      that's why they still do it. His act of "humility" is only humility if he does it of his own free will, and since it is a tradition, you have no idea what he feels about it.

      Just a photo op at this point...if it truly was humble, it wouldn't be broadcast around the world.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • Chuckles

      Little known fact

      He was babptized Jorge Mario Bergoglio and took the Pope name "Francis", but his high school buddies still call him "Beer Goggles"

      He also owns a lot of cats. A plague of cats. They're all named after saints and it's getting to be a problem. At the Vatican he's playfully referred to as "Beer Goggles, the crazy cat guy"

      Who knew?

      For more fun facts, go to The Morning News

      March 28, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Do you really think he will ever do anything again that isn't broadcast worldwide?

      March 28, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  9. revolting peasant

    This seems kinda creepy to me, but it is preferable to fondling little boys.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Yeah, it's different than that

      March 28, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • The Demon Deacon

      Bill Deacon
      Is irrelevant. Billy is an obsequious papal apologist troll. Is this not like black Sunday for the RCC franchises? If they, the RCC businesses, do not look like they are going to turn a profit they shut the losers down? RSVP.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
    • bobcat (in a hat)©

      @revolting peasant – Then why do you condone Mohammed when he did a 9 year old Aisha?

      March 28, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  10. James Dean

    "In a radical departure from tradition, Francis said Holy Thursday Mass not at the ornately appointed Basilica of St. John Lateran, but in a small chapel with nearly 50 teenage boys"

    ooohhh lala, the other priests are going to love him for this. Nothing like 50 teenage boys.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
  11. Ari for Peace

    As an act of humility, this is nice. Those in need of this are the wealthy 1%. More importantly before it is too late for the Pope's soul is that the Pope needs to repent and teach repentance, and NO church or christian should teach that Jesus pays for your sins. Jesus said repent which means you pay for your own sins, and as Jesus spoke of in the Parable of the Lost Coin, doing work like cleaning and seeking diligently is all a part of repentance... Also, note that correcting something as small as a lost coin shows Jesus's views on repentance and sins (devations from "the way, the truth, and the life – economic health of life for a lost coin).

    March 28, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
    • bostontola

      Pretty sweeping statement. Gates and his wife give millions and have saved many. I think there is a name for people who indict all people within a group...

      March 28, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • End Religion

      Jesus never said any of that. You're aware other people wrote the bible, right?

      March 28, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      ER didn't say that, he wrote down what someone else said that he was told they heard.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • josh

      @end religion
      So are you also saying that Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Persians never believed in any gods, because it was written down/carved into stone by others?
      "Jesus never said any of that. You're aware other people wrote the bible, right?"

      March 28, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
  12. Sensible

    @neoritter....and what is delusional about calling delusion what it is??

    March 28, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  13. think about it


    March 28, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • DustyOnes


      March 28, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • D

      Once again someone goes out of their way to show compassion and humbleness to those who least deserve it and all people can do is criticize? Where has our humanity gone? I am not catholic, but this man is showing the love of Christ – if more people humbled themselves and reached out to those that society and our culture "shuns" – this country and our world would be a better place.
      This is symbolic, washing someone's feet is a very humble gesture. This man is NOT the one that made the Catholic church what it is today and how dare we judge him for his "motives". Mother Teresa did the same things with Aids ridden children and lepers. Just because he wears nice clothing does that make him any less of a servant than she was?

      March 28, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      D, This pope appears to be acting more in keeping with what the teachings of Jesus are stated to be, which is good. We'll see what happens over time to the RCC on more substantive issues, of which the RCC faces many.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:47 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I'm revisiting biographies and examinations of St Francis of Assisi. My hope is to align myself spiritually with this pope who is a pragmatic pastor, a shoe leather minister. I want to emulate the pope, the saint and ultimately the Savior of us each, to spread the Gospel, sanctify the Church and express my grattude for my own redemption.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Bill Deacon,

      then go wash some feet tonight.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  14. Sensible

    This man may even be sincere or maybe trying to give his church a much needed makeover, who knows his motives. It's probably a bit of both to be fair. His organization has alot of issues that need addressing which are more important than bathing folks feet. It's amazing how the parties of god get away with the most atrocious crimes against humanity by claiming divine right and power. This nonsense really needs to end.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      You seem to think this is some kind of contrived publicity stunt. You realize, do you not, that foot washing is a tradition dating back to the last supper and the insttution of the priesthood?

      March 28, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
    • Sensible

      Oh billy boy, nobody is saying thats is not part of any tradtion or ritual. Save me the faith history lesson. If you think for a second this has nothing to do with publicity you are more deluded than I can imagine. I did say he may have well intentions also but the cameras would not be there if he did not want them there. Others have pointed this out in plenty of threads. He is a politican with a direct line to the divine.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  15. Sue

    the oscar goes to............. The pope.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  16. Sensible

    And this is supposed to atone for the systematic cover up of children being abused. When will the deluded wake up??

    March 28, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • neoritter

      I think you're the only delusional person here right now.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • Pam

      Sensible,very sensible of you.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  17. Pam

    Better way for the pope to spend his time than trying to cover up criminal priests like the last guy did. But he'll be doing the latter soon too.

    it's always the same deal with religious folk: show some marketable humble or charitable stuff to pull the sheep in and rake in some dollars to pay for the lavish robes, and provide something to use as a red herring to keep people from focusing in on the nasty bits and priest crimes. And shroud the whole thing in mysticism and even use a language that most of the flock don't know. There you have the RCC and many other churches in a nutshell.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • Sherlock

      This is the same man who rejected his lavish apartment provided by the Church to live closer to his congregation, passed on an offered chauffered limousine to take the bus, and cooked his own meals despite being offered a cook. Just because what he is doing currently is being televised does not mean he doesn't live a humble life. You might as well say that any person who gets publicity for their good deeds was just hungry for attention. He has consistently shown that he wants to be humble.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Vatican II began the use of the vernacular during mass. So, since 1964, no Pam.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • The Demon Deacon

      The post by catholic shill Bill Deacon is completely off the mark, as usual.

      March 28, 2013 at 6:35 pm |
    • Derek

      The 2 posts after Pam's merely buttress what she said. One hand of the church does the nice stuff, the other hand, is, well, let's not even go there. It's obscene.

      March 28, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
    • Jezeballs

      Wow, a pope who cooks his own meals.Who'd a thunk it. I'd be worried about who he invites over for dinner, actually.

      March 28, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
  18. BentleyBooks

    I love this man.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
    • Theo

      And he loves your children especially the boys

      March 28, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  19. Doc Vestibule

    I'm off to see a Bad Religion concert on Sunday nght.

    Sorry Jesus,

    March 28, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  20. xirume

    Catholics are a bunch of freaks with weird and arcane beliefs. That's just too much to stomach.

    March 28, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • neoritter

      Sounds like you're a narrow-minded bigot.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • Tim

      The Pope imitates Christ washing the feet of His Disciples – and you reply to this custome by saying Catholics are freaks? You cannot be real.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • Brother Maynard

      Eating flesh and drinking blood ?
      Sounds pretty freakish to me

      March 28, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • Blake

      They chould have been washing each other's balls after crossing the desert all that time. I think that was a more modern tradition though.

      They washed their feet to keep dirt off the floor. Leave it to religion to make something out of nothing.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Blake, it was Jesus who made something out of nothing.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • Sensible

      The only folks who it doesn't sound freaky to is the ones immersed in this foolishness.

      March 28, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Sensible, yeah, It's called contempt prior to investigation.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Sensible

      Billy, jesus made what out of nothing?? You are the only one who has not investigated any of the claims of the religous.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      The article does a decent job of explaining it Senseless but I'll recompose for you. Foot washing was a menial task for servants at a time when feet were considered almost a taboo and certainly the most undesirable part of the body. Jesus was the master of the Apostles. His desire to wash the Apostle's feet turned the convention on it's ear and gave the example providing the lesson that "He who would be greatest must serve".

      So, in that sense, Jesus took nothing, a simple chore, and turned it into something; a tradition which even today, informs our need to humble ourselves before the needy and serve them with dignity. Without this lesson, you would probably be a slave to Caesar.

      March 28, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.