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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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

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  8. RW

    Is this hospitality or a foot fetish?

    April 8, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
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    April 5, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
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      atheists lie all the time

      April 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  11. His panic

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    April 1, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  12. Armando

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    March 31, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
  13. EX Catholic

    Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, he did NOT however kissed their feet. Can you begin to see the difference? The Fact is that, there is nothing in the text of the Gospels, that can make anyone believe that HE ever kissed anyone.

    He may have done but is NOT in the text. If it does not says it, then don't start inventing stories and making interpolations of preconceived ideologies.

    This is nothing more than a charade, a mockery, a show off for the cameras. Do Not be Deceived by this Idolater.

    March 31, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
    • EX Catholic

      I just checked again with different versions in 3 different languages.

      Yup, there's not even a Hint at all, that Jesus Our Lord and Savior ever kissed anyone not even children. He Preached, He Taught, He Healed and Blessed people but never kissed anyone. If it was of any importance the Text would have said so.

      Can you at the very least begin to see the difference between Jesus and this man? I certainly hope so!

      March 31, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
    • Quest ion



      Which versions did you check?

      In what languages?


      March 31, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • EX Catholic

      Hello there Questioner! Thanks for asking!

      The NIV, the Latin Vulgate and the Spanish Reina-Valera 1960. Also checked the French, Italian and Portuguese versions. Not even a Hint at all of Jesus Our Only Mediator EVER kissing anyone much less kissing feet. Again this is nothing more than a charade a mockery of Jesus and of the Gospel. People DO NOT BE DECEIVED BY THIS IDOLATER. IDOLATRY IS NOT, again IS NOT Religion. IDOLATRY IS AN ABERRANT, ABHORRENT and Very Serious SIN.

      March 31, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
    • vincastar

      I kiss people...even people at church. Am I mocking Jesus? Or is it my humble way of expressing love. The Pope never claimed that Jesus kissed anyone's feet. He is doing as Jesus did and expressing love at the same time which is as Jesus intended...doing these things in love is in the Bible but Jesus did not explicitly state who to express that love...It seems God left some room for free expression of love. If you think it is possible to wash and kiss a prisoners feet without feeling humility then I don't believe you...I challenge you to do it yourself for whatever reason you like to see that it is not without humility or providing a service for the good of others.

      April 2, 2013 at 7:28 am |
    • vincastar

      That is how to express that love not who : )

      April 2, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • Nick

      Actually Jesus probably did not do anything what the bible says he did. Why? because the bible was written years after Jesus, by people who never met Jesus, and were fabricated to progress the agenda of their own following sects of middle eastern herdsmen. There is nothing in the gospels that makes me believe he ever existed, its all a fabricated story.

      April 2, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
    • nikidog101

      There is a difference between going to criminals and washing their feet, and a celebrity going to cut a ribbon for a charity. Just think about how great that would have felt to the prisoners and how much it really touched them, and not about the media or some planned trick to get a good rep.

      April 18, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  14. In celebration of the resurrection of Christ

    Thank you Jesus !

    March 31, 2013 at 6:38 am |
  15. Gadea

    That foot washing, foot kissing, looks like a fetish.

    March 30, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
    • Saraswati

      It looks like a public health issue. There's a reason public buildings require shoes.

      March 31, 2013 at 12:51 am |
  16. melwin

    Hi Guy HAB, Be Humble, polite. Dont get disturbed by the gesture of washing feet by Pope. You are worse then Pope.

    March 30, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  17. HAB

    What I don't understand is, how Christians, or Catholics, who believe that Jesus is their authority, can follow a church more than Jesus. If a church is in conflict with what Jesus said... why would you STILL stick with that church over and over and over again... I know they have brainwashed you into thinking they are the only true church, but Jesus never said this. Jesus would be appalled that the priests that molested kids were not in prison, and that people still supported the chuch instead of demanding change. Jesus was a revolutionary and criticised the church a LOT in his time. I think he'd be proud of Catholics if they staged a walk out, demanded their money stop being spend on limos, that those who molested kids be kicked out and jailed, and that more checks and balances be put in place.

    March 30, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • vincastar

      You don't abandon those in need. You pray and help those in need...that is the true Christian way. Jesus came to unite us not divide us....it is his prayer in the Bible. If a member of your body is hurt you don't cut it off, you help heal it...the Bible talks about the One Body of Christ and it is beautiful...I encourage you to read it. In all your complaints about some priests (while overlooking the amazing greatness of the many saints...more than any other religion) do you pray for them? Did you take a moment to pray for them or your Catholic brothers and sisters before you berated them on this forum? Did you help them?

      Also, to clear up your concern for Jesus and the Church...the people are what make up the Church and Jesus is the head of the Church. "Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body." Col 1:18

      April 2, 2013 at 7:41 am |
    • Aaron

      Vincastar, you misunderstand scripture. The Lord said, "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hellfire." Matthew 18:9.

      The Lord didn't counsel and rehabilitate the moneychangers who had defiled the holy temple. He cast them out. Literally, he whipped them until they departed. If you claim to be the true church of Christ on earth you better be ready to do some serious pruning when evil fruit is found. No effort was made to prune the church of its darker branches when they were found. Every effort was made to protect the church's reputation at the expense of the innocence of little children. I wonder what Christ would say or do about that were he here...

      I'm not going to bash this Pope. He seems sincere and his actions heartfelt. I just wish there was less press about it. It would feel more genuine if it was lesser known and reported. That being said, the Pope may be a good man and may do his best to lead the Catholic faith, but he has no priesthood authority. It was lost when the last apostle was killed or died. What exists now is the organization Constantine created, not the one Christ created. Where are the apostles? Where are the Seventy? Where is there an apostle and prophet who leads by revelation? Not here. Only one place.

      April 3, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  18. HAB

    First thought I had was that no priest, bishop or even pope from that church shoudl have access to young men. He is kissing their feet. For all we know he ahs a foot fetish. I am also sick of people saying he is humble. It is NOT humble to refuse to take a limo to work. It is normal. And, I don't think limos were any sort of standard mode of transport that Jesus would endorse. Plus, look how staged this all is, and then the vatican newspaper reports it and send those reports to all of the news around the work. "look at us, look at out new pope, look how humble he is, kissing feet". The fact is that nobody who does things for others to see it as a show is truly humble, and no church is either. This is PR. Plus, the whole fact that they are playing up the fact that he would even wash the feet of jevenile offenders... it sounds condescending... like he is so much better than them and so it is even more amazing. Most men in that church are crminals directly or by association, and so I dont see him as any better. And I do still find it creepy.

    March 30, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
    • AC


      March 30, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • HAB

      I judge others that molest young children because they need the protection of adults and not people who cannot take criticism of their church. I love Jesus, he was a great dude. I just think he would be absolutely disgusted by the catholic church.

      March 30, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • HAB

      And, I have a very happy life, thanks 🙂

      March 30, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  19. EX Catholic

    This a charade a mockery of what Jesus did. IDOLATRY is NOT Religion IDOLATRY is an Aberrant, Abhorrent, grave and serious SIN. Do NOT be deceived by this Idolater.

    March 30, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • To Ex Catholic

      Dear Ex Catholic, why do you try so hard to convince people the otherwise? The pope, before he became one, was committed to poor people .... did you call what he has been doing his whole life as a charade too?

      April 4, 2013 at 5:46 am |
  20. Ben

    I like how he's starting from the bottom and working his way up to an entry level position. Years of priest experience, I guess.

    March 30, 2013 at 10:22 am |
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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.