Pope off to prison for foot washing ritual

Associated Press

Vatican City — Pope Francis heads to a maximum security prison on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of a dozen inmates, stressing in a pre-Easter ritual that a pope must serve society’s marginalized and give them hope.

The Paliano detention center, located in a fortress south of Rome, is the only Italian prison dedicated to housing mafia turncoats. These “collaborators of justice” can shave time off their sentences by cooperating with anti-mafia prosecutors.

The Vatican said three of the 12 inmates are women and one is a Muslim who is due to be baptized a Christian in June.

It’s the third Holy Thursday that Francis has spent at a detention center, part of his longstanding emphasis on ministering to prisoners and giving them rehabilitation and hope.

The Vatican said two of the 12 inmates chosen for the feet-washing ceremony are serving life terms, while the others have release dates between 2019 and 2073.

“They adore this pope and are looking for a word of comfort for themselves and their families,” prison chaplain the Rev. Luigi Paoletti told Vatican Radio.

Prisoners prepared cakes as gifts and planned to offer the pope zucchini and cucumbers from the prison’s organic garden.

Because of the nature of the prison and its inmates, Francis’ visit is being conducted under unusually private terms: The Vatican said audio and selected television images of his homily would be released only after the fact. Usually the pope’s activities are covered live by Vatican TV and radio.

Paliano’s 60-70 inmates include about 50 mafia turncoats. The prison also houses four women and has a special ward for tuberculosis-infected inmates.

In an interview published Thursday in Rome daily La Repubblica, Francis said his emphasis on reaching out to inmates comes from his heart, as well as the biblical imperative to visit prisoners and accompany the least of society.

“When I’m looking at a prisoner, I ask myself: ‘Why him and not me?’” he said. “ ‘Why did he fall and not me?’ It’s a mystery that brings me closer to them.”

Francis opened the most solemn period of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar by celebrating Mass on Thursday morning in St. Peter’s Basilica. On Friday, he participates in the torch-lit procession at Rome’s Colosseum re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion.

Saturday brings the late-night Easter vigil, with Easter Sunday Mass the following day.