The symbolism – a stark departure from Pope Liberace – is like a breath of spring air in a wintry March. From abandoning the papal throne to living communally, Francis is living up to his chosen saint. But this is more significant, it seems to me more than merely a change of tone:
In his most significant break with tradition yet, Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of two young women at a juvenile detention center — a surprising departure from church rules that restrict the Holy Thursday ritual to men.
No pope has ever washed the feet of a woman before, and Francis’ gesture sparked a debate among some conservatives and liturgical purists, who lamented he had set a “questionable example.” Liberals welcomed the move as a sign of greater inclusiveness in the church.
Speaking to the young offenders, including Muslims and Orthodox Christians, Francis said that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion in a gesture of love and service. “This is a symbol, it is a sign. Washing your feet means I am at your service,” Francis told the group, aged 14 to 21, at the Casal del Marmo detention facility in Rome.
“Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us,” the pope said. “This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty. As a priest and bishop, I must be at your service.”
(Photo: Pope Francis prays on the floor as he presides over a Papal Mass with the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion inside St Peter’s Basilica on March 29, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)