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. Andy

    God bless the Pope and all Catholics, Prods, muslims, atheists, agnostics, Jews, etc. on this Holy Week leading to Easter.

    March 28, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
    • Hindu


      March 28, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • Paul not the Pope

      RAmen. There's only one true god, the FSM, but rotini is OK too with him ,with the right sauce.

      March 28, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
  2. Liel

    The greatest lesson on humility was demonstrated by the Lord himself 2000 years ago. The pope is emulating his God well by following the example God set for us.

    March 28, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  3. Omer

    I am a muslim and was deeply touched by the pope's gesture of washing these people's feet. Here is atlast ONE man in this whole wide world who is setting an example of humility and compassion. So what, if he is a christian and I am a muslim and you, who might be reading this is jew or a hindu or a buddhist. The main point is not to deviate from our religion and adapt bad things but to follow the good things, of not only one's own but other religions too.
    May GOD bless Pope Francis!

    March 28, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
    • Hindu

      My brother, you are a true Muslim and genuine lover of God.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
    • rhondajo3

      Thank you Omer. May everyone, regardless of faith, learn from this humble, but great man.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
  4. Meg

    God bless you CGAW. And Jeezballs and MagicPanties and pink unicorns as well. God created and loves all of you!

    March 28, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  5. Hindu

    I am a Hindu but today I feel like a Catholic. The pope has won my heart through this genuine act of humility. Thanks for leading by example, Pope Francis!

    March 28, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
    • konkal

      I agree, he is great.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  6. gd

    This is all part of a major marketing campaign...recognize it for what it is.

    March 28, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • konkal

      What ? This is nothing new, it's taken from the bible and done in every Catholic Church on holy Thursday.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • gd

      Obviously it is scriptural...you miss the point...

      Catholic church is doing everything they can to control the narrative, and the news cycle (as they should). Note: They failed miserably in this area with Benedict. Nevertheless, whether you deem it a good thing or a bad thing, you're staring in the face of a marketing campaign that is building on the theme of 'the humble pope." Again, see it for what it is.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
  7. Bennie

    "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.”"

    Respect for who? Certainly not to the person being called "the lowliest".

    March 28, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
    • Riding

      Catholic or not, he was doing what Jesus did. Jesus went around just doing good. He also showed us how to live and died for us as the son of God. But it takes a big heart to do something like that.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
  8. rhondajo3

    I'm not a Catholic, but I have to say that I am very impressed with this new Pope. He can teach the entire world lessons regardless of faith or lack of.

    March 28, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  9. blake

    After the church's evil history, you and the pope have a lot to make up for. Better to just leave that corrupt organization and its delusions behind."

    this is one of their most devout filthy minded, sick, god-hating trolls they encourage. she has promised repeatedly to bring a swift end to christianity

    March 28, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
    • Paul not the Pope

      blake, not sure who you are talking to but it sure sounds like you are the one with the hate on. And an end to Christianity? That sure sounds like a good thing. Bring it on, for a better world

      March 28, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  10. Mopery

    Good, and when he's done washing those feet he can kiss my @ss.

    March 28, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
    • blake

      o u big meany

      March 28, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • blake

      make comments like that all day. that is on you and no one cares. start threatening and we care

      March 28, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • chrissy

      @Mopery – Pope is not your Mohammed.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
  11. 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 7:07 pm |
  12. Free Spirit

    Regardless of your belief, kindly respect the practices of the other religions... including the Catholic practices. Why bring malice to the traditions that some faiths consider sacred and holy? Why condemn and ridicule the people of the Church as if you have never committed any sins?

    March 28, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
    • blake

      :xianity is everything i have asserted – and most certainly is dangerous. the holocaust – perpetrated by good xian nazis – evidence of the danger of xian thinking run amok" the Anvil

      March 28, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • Respect the practices?

      Like we should respect the catholic practice of hiding ped-ophile priests and shifting them to different parishes?
      Like the catholic practice of condemning con-doms in Africa?
      And must I respect every practice of every screwy cult that calls itself a religion?

      March 29, 2013 at 7:38 am |
  13. Caroline

    Some of you need to learn to respect the beliefs of others. I'm a lapsed Catholic who identifies as agnostic at this point. I've got plenty of complaints about the Catholic Church. But just because some members of a group are bad doesn't mean the majority are. Too many folks think being offensive for the sake of offensiveness is funny. It's lazy and simple-minded.

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

      Thanks, I appreciate your tolerance!!!!!! You understand the true meaning of the word. Peace be with you

      March 28, 2013 at 7:07 pm |
    • blake

      i am pleased to tell you that CNN encourages hate speech by the Anvil, sam stone, tom tom and many others. they threaten to bring a swift end to christianity's influence and accuse christians of all kinds of evil.

      we are looking to take them to court for hate speech

      March 28, 2013 at 7:11 pm |
    • Chuckles


      How can you seriously keep ignoring this and spouting this stupid comment?

      You can't take anyone to court for hate speech, it flies in the face of the first amendment and would get you laughed at in the police station, court system and just about anyone who has a rudimentry understanding of the law.

      The only way you can take anyone of these peole to court is if they threatened you and then gave you reasonable cause to believe they would actually carry it out, then the most you could do would be to get a restraining order.

      That's it, that's all you can do. Until any poster actually a commits a real crime the only thing you can do is get all huffy and cry about it, which we all know works so well in any school yard. Bullies always stop the moment a kid sheds a tear right?

      March 28, 2013 at 7:17 pm |
  14. heathen

    yeah....hes just STARTING at the feet..hes working his way up....

    March 28, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  15. Michael

    Is there a historical and religious significance to what he's doing? Yes.
    Is he trying to set an example with good intentions? I hope.
    Was it a good choice to pick mostly young male prisoner's considering? Nope.
    Does it creep me out a bit? Yup.

    March 28, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  16. Chuck

    It was a lesson in humility that Jesus taught to his followers,
    Only CHRIST can wash away your sins, that is the lesson

    March 28, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Ah Ah, No

      It was a lesson in humility, yes, and that is all. I am not going to argue with your second point by itself, but the lesson has nothing to do with Christ washing away sins.

      King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
      John 13:14
      If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
    • PoqVaUSA

      John 14-15: Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

      You don't understand the example that was given. Jesus told his disciples on the occasion of washing their feet that they should do the same for one another. Also, He told Peter that those who have had a bath need only wash their feet. He was talking to believers (baptized believers) about a renewing of their spirit, not about salvation. Only God can save, but we are instructed o help carry each others burdens and not add to them.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  17. CGAW

    This man is showing REAL signs and actions of leadership. The world and the church needs someone badly to show all other world leaders and leaders at all levels how to behave. Hollywood's version of leadership does not take care of world's common person.

    March 28, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  18. Meg

    I 'm a cradle Catholic and the Mass on Holy Thursday was always my favorite. Having the stranger next to you wash your feet (they gently wipe a clean cloth over the top) is humbling and lovely at the same time and makes you feel a part of a bigger family. I think it's a wonderful thing and it does not surprise me that Pope Francis chose to do this for youthful offenders. It does not surprise me at all. Some of the awful, unnecessary comments here do. But Pope Francis would forgive them easier than I can. Of this I'm sure.

    March 28, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
    • Jezeballs

      After the church's evil history, you and the pope have a lot to make up for. Better to just leave that corrupt organization and its delusions behind.

      March 28, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • MagicPanties

      I was a cradle catholic.
      But in my teens I learned to think and reason, and so like Santa Claus, there went religion.
      My invisible pink unicorn is praying that you too get a clue.

      March 28, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • CGAW

      Don't worry about the bitter and hateful atheists Meg. Hateful and bitter people are full of hurt they cannot process and have no one to trust or lean on or they could just be flat out rotten people. Either way they need our prayers. God bless you for your committment to Christ.

      March 28, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • Tom

      Interesting responses, but no surprises from people named Jezeballs and MagicPanties. They believe that they have found their truth and I wish them luck with that. Catholicism is truly the thinking man's religion – clearly not for people with pink unicorns or an aversion to personal accountability.

      Happy Easter!

      March 28, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Paul not the Pope

      Religion is actually the complete avoidance of responsibility. You slough off all your responsibilities to your sky god who just forgives anything the most evil criminal asks it to. What a fraud.

      Me, I prefer human justice, and I'll shoulder my fair load of responsibility for my actions. I hope that other adults will do likewise rather than keep on clinging on to the same old violent delusions and religious mistakes of their more primitive ancestors.

      March 28, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
  19. MagicPanties

    My invisible pink unicorn licks my feet.
    It tickles a bit.

    March 28, 2013 at 6:36 pm |
  20. Skalamoosh

    You have to respect this new Pope.

    Choosing youth? This was carefully calculated- He is showing that he is here to make right what was done to youth of America through the priests before. I am not Catholic, but can respect that he is standing up for what is right and showing Jesus' nature as a servant.

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

      Such ridiculousness. Zeus washed my feet last night. All hail the mighty Zeus.

      March 28, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • CGAW

      I agree and its almost comical to se the hateful atheist trolls mock good leadership – it is a true demonstration of their bad character.

      March 28, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • nisroc00

      Oh come on!

      Youths does not mean children or teens, why does everything that the church does lead back to child abuse. yes i know they have a history of it but it does not mean everyone under the church is a child molester. many people think the church protect child molester that reside with in the Church rather then have them punished but how many of you realize that the church is not part of a country. This is like America thinking ever Arabic people is a terrorist.

      He washed their feet not the private parts for crying out loud. He lowered himself to a servant level in many peoples eyes but really all it meant was you have traveled. Maybe some good will come out of it.

      Get a life and think for a change.

      Non-religious person,

      March 28, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • rocketscientist

      "I agree and its almost comical to se the hateful atheist trolls mock good leadership – it is a true demonstration of their bad character."

      To me, it's more dissapointing than anything else. I hate bigotry and believe everyone is worthy of respect and compassion and when I see obvious examples of those who don't believe and live that golden rule, well, I just think it's sad. I think they're missing out and obviously projecting their own unhapiness and anger with their lives on to others. That goes for people on both side of the divide, atheists and the religious. I certainly don't think that the bigots here are reprensentative of their respective groups at all. I have friends religious, secular, atheist, etc., and they're my friends because they're good people, not because of what they do or do not believe.

      Dr. H

      March 28, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
    • Sensible

      CGAW...as a non believer I will give this pope the same chance I will give any other person to determine what kind of qualities they bring to the table. Some atheist are hateful as well as many folks of faith. This is to be expected within any group. We just see the blatant hypocrisy that faith organizations display and it causes resentment. It's very clear when you are not blinded by the nonsense from within. They don't tend to practice what they preach and they stick their noses in folks businesss when they should only worry about their followers. Lets all try and make the world better belivers and non believers alike.

      March 28, 2013 at 7:16 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.