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. TG

    Jesus used the washing of his twelve apostles feet as a springboard to show the need for humility, not that genuine Christians should go around washing people's feet. Because everyone wore sandals that allowed dust and dirt to get on their feet, it was hospitable to wash their feet upon arriving.

    Burt much more is involved in being humble, for Jesus used a young child as a backdrop, saying: "Truly I say to you, Unless you turn around and become as young children, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens. Therefore, whoever will humble himself like this young child is the one that is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens."(Matt 18:3, 4) At Luke 9:48, Jesus used the expression "lesser one" (Greek mikroteros) that means someone who is modest, humble, lowly, insignificant, or of little esteem and influence.

    Hence, a person who ' becomes as a young child ', who acts as a "lesser one", is one who allows themselves to be taught by our Creator, Jehovah God, rejecting creeds, doctrines and traditions that are not based on the Bible, just as Jesus did.(Matt 15:3-9) Proverbs 22 says: "The result of humility and the fear of Jehovah is riches and glory and life."(Prov 22:4)

    March 28, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • blake

      jesus washed their feet because he was their servant and ours, too, and he wants us to be like him and to serve each other. his goal is to form christ within us. he calls us to the refining fire.

      March 29, 2013 at 6:47 am |
  2. zygmunt

    To Hindu , if you want to be good person you do not have to be a member of catholic church

    March 28, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
  3. zygmunt

    Put Jesus Back On The Cross, sorry you do not understand the roman catlick church.
    so many priests are loset too . the church is a great business company run succesufly for 2 000 years . it started from small barn with a cow and few shieaps.

    March 28, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
  4. Put Jesus Back On The Cross

    He probably has a foot fetish. All the priests, bishops, popes, are pedophiles.

    March 28, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
  5. zygmunt

    If Obama did the same as the pope do probably he would colect more money than from taxes

    March 28, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
  6. zygmunt

    If Obama did the same as the pope probably he would collect more money then from taxes

    March 28, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
  7. Hindu

    Atheists commentators who are spewing their hatred here simply prove the points that, a) those who do not believe in God can NOT truly appreciate goodness, b) fruit of atheism is nothing but hatred.

    Learn to appreciate a good, kind and humble act even if it comes from someone you may not agree with.

    March 28, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
    • Sensible

      Hindu, we can't appreciate goodness huh..we full of hate huh. Believing in god has nothing to do with the two. You surely can find atheists that are good as you can find plenty of the parties of god who hate and get in the way of societies moving forward.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
    • TANK!!!!

      "those who do not believe in God can NOT truly appreciate goodness"

      Lovely caste system you've got going on over there................

      March 28, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


      "Learn to appreciate a good, kind and humble act"

      I'll grant you that this is indeed an ACT! It is staged for maximum impact. It is not 'good kind and humble' – these people don't need their feet washed.

      It is symbolic. It is clearly intended to send the message that it is important to be of service to others – no matter what your status/position. OK fine, that's all very nice, but it this was not done for the purposes of kindness – this is pure stagecraft.

      March 28, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • Hindu

      @I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV -

      if this is symbolic - then go to your local jail and just do this symbolic act on feet of 10 persons - and then talk to me. It is easy to talk but it takes a big heart to bow down at someone's feet, wash their feet, dry them and kiss them.

      March 28, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "it takes a big heart to bow down at someone's feet, wash their feet, dry them and kiss them."


      Nevertheless it is a gesture – a demonstration for show. They didn't need their feet washed.

      You can decide that it is a "meaningful gesture" if you like, but a gesture is what it is.

      March 28, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
  8. EuphoriCrest

    Why is the pope washing kids' feet? Given the history of the RCC, I'm guessing it's a foot fetish.

    Leave the children alone!!!

    March 28, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
    • Hindu

      Pervert Atheist! Not everyone in the world has a dirty mind like you.

      Atheists like you simply prove the point that those who do not believe in God can NOT truly appreciate goodness.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
  9. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    It's harmless enough. Let the strange celibate men play with each others' feet.

    March 28, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
    • Hindu

      Atheists like you prove the point that those who do not believe in God can NOT truly appreciate goodness.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I could understand the good if the man simply noticed my tired, swollen, dirty feet and, out of sympathy and kindness, poured some nice cold water over them. But this is entirely symbolic and actually has no value other than it increases his stature in the eyes of believers. It is not humility at all.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
  10. zygmunt

    .......becasuse church needs money....and tis is a great busness working for about 2000 years

    March 28, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
    • Hindu

      No surprise here - materialists and atheists can only think of everything from money angle.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
  11. gd

    Please recognize that you're staring in the face of a major marketing campaign aimed at branding Pope Francis as the humble pope. Good or bad? You decide, but recognize it for what it is...

    The Catholic church has been controlling this narrative from the time Francis was selected, and have been managing the news cycle accordingly...which I would note they failed miserably at this with Francis; thus his inability to fly above the fray with regard to the priest abuse scandals.

    Nevertheless...marketing and PR...that is what you're seeing!!!

    March 28, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
    • gd

      correction: Failed miserably at this with Benedict

      March 28, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  12. jeffythepotato

    this is'nt news, an artillery strike hitting a university in syria is news

    March 28, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  13. ann wilson

    If he wants to help the poor, he can reverse the Church's stand on birth control, which is just an old theological paper
    written by Pope John Paul, that has no basis in scripture.

    March 28, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • Hindu

      How does birth control and abortion help the poor?

      March 28, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Giving the poor better control over their lives obviously helps the poor. Or, if you want to be pragmatic about it, having fewer people born into poverty is an effective way to ease poverty.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  14. Hindu

    Atheists - learn to appreciate a good act - even from those who you may not agree with!

    March 28, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • Dave in Arizona

      This is more about tradition than a modern good act. Were their feet even dirty? If they were then it would have been a practical, good act.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Hindu

      @Dave in Arizona -

      It is not about whether the feet were dirty or not.

      It is an act of humility to bow down at someone's feet and then wash them, dry them and kiss them. You need a big heart to be able to do this. It is not possible for people of small heart to do this. Do it yourself and then tell me.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Sensible

      Hindu, I agree that it is an act of humility generally speaking. Its hard not to be skeptical of the new leader of an organization that has committed unmitigated crimes against humanity, especially children who are amongst the weakest in any society. Stop with the generalizations such as "atheist are showing their true colors" as if a few people represent the whole group.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:43 pm |
  15. Hindu

    News - Atheists fail to appreciate a genuine act of kindness, humility and love. Shame on atheist commentators showing their low class here - shows their true hatred. Also proves that hatred is the fruit of atheism even when presented with acts of kindness and love. A tree is to be judged by its fruit - and hatred is not a good fruit to display - atheists!!

    March 28, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • Sensible

      Hindu, You really dont sound to peaceful yourself. Hatred is the fruits of atheism?? when was the last time you seen atheist protesting against the rights of other human beings? or trying to retard the education system? or getting in the way of scientific research? Things things speak of hate more so than a few insults hurled across the internet. I'm not into slinging insults but you are really over generalizing here sport.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
  16. Hindu

    Going by the comments on this board, only the atheists are disturbed and spewing hatred in face of this genuine & exemplary act of humility, kindness and love from a true man of God. Atheists are showing their true colors here.

    March 28, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
    • Humility from the catholic church???

      In the light of all the “genuine & exemplary act of humility, kindness and love from” priests for little boys, this looks a lot more like an act of PR and damage control

      March 29, 2013 at 5:49 am |
  17. YuckyYuck

    He's going to get thrush (Athlete's Foot of the mouth.) Poor Pope dude.

    March 28, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  18. Hindu

    All the people of faith - christians, muslims, hindus and others are touched by this genuine act of humility, love and compassion. This is real unity of people of faith around these fundamental principles.

    March 28, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
  19. SNAPPA

    My question is: Why do I have to read about this idiotic nonsense?

    March 28, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • YuckyYuck


      March 28, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
    • Rick

      The bigger question is why did you click the link? Get over yourself already. If you don't like the pope or the Catholic Church (or more likely, any religion), then stop clicking these stories. No one is forcing you to read anything.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • tom johnston

      You don't have to read it. You chose to.
      Got to another fairy tale on Huffpo or what ever you libs do.

      March 28, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
  20. taxedmore

    Why does it have to be such a pain in the ass to leave a comment on CNN?

    March 28, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
    • tom johnston

      How hard is it. You type your name then your e-mail address. Duh

      March 28, 2013 at 8:25 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.