Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 immigrants during the Holy Thursday celebrations, hoping the gesture will heal the world of bad blood.
Instead of St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope preferred a refugee shelter outside Rome in Castelnuovo di Porto to celebrate the symbolic foot-washing ceremony ahead of Easter. The solemn event stood as a sharp contrast to the spectacle of war, bloodshed, and hate in the European city of Brussels.
The Easter ritual of washing the feet symbolizes the event that Jesus performed with his disciples before his crucifixion. Maundy Thursday is the Holy Thursday before Easter that refers to the story of Jesus’ Last Supper.
This year in the foot-washing ceremony, the pope knelt before eight men and four women, which included three Muslims, three Eritrean Coptic Christian women, and a Hindu.
According to the Associated Press, “Several of the migrants then wept as Francis knelt before them, poured holy water from a brass pitcher over their feet, wiped them clean and kissed them.”
After the ceremony, he individually met many of the refugees residing at the shelter.
The gesture builds significance as Europe grapples with terror, especially after the Brussels attack that triggered anti-Islam debates in Europe and the U.S. around the issue of migrant crisis in Europe.
Following the instability and civil war in parts of the Middle East and Africa, millions of refugees reached Europe last year, most of them crossing over from Turkey to the shores of Greek islands of the eastern Aegean. Pope Francis has always advocated for the global community, especially Europe, to welcome refugees and discourage xenophobia.
According to USA Today, “Francis called the assault on the Belgium capital an “act of war, of destruction… by people who do not want to live in peace.”
He compared the Belgium terror group to Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ disciple who, according to the Bible, betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
Addressing the 900 migrants and refugees at the center, he said they are the children of the same god despite their differences.
Francis said, “We have different cultures and religions, but we are brothers and we want to live in peace.”
Following the deadly Belgium airport attack that killed at least 31 people and injured hundreds, the Vatican stepped up security around the papal foot-washing ritual Thursday.
The symbolic act of the pope washing the feet of immigrants sent a clear message of openness to the European refugee crisis. At the same time, the inclusion of women in the event also prompted debate, considering the Vatican ruling that foot washing is performed on men. The new practice of women’s inclusion has significant implications for church law.
Days after taking over the papal office in 2013, the Argentinian pontiff raised eyebrows by including women in his foot-washing ceremony at a juvenile detention center. Earlier, he also washed the feet of prisoners and disabled people.
During the ceremony, Pope Francis also decreed that “women can now officially participate in the Holy Thursday foot-washing ritual alongside men for the first time since the 1950s,” the Washington Post reported.
Dennis Doyle, professor of theology at the University of Dayton said, “What is being symbolized here is that women are fully included in the people of God.”
The pope’s popularity puts him ahead of world leaders such as Barack Obama. A majority of the world’s protestants, atheists, and agnostics view him favorably, according to a Gallup poll that questioned people across 64 countries.
While Pope Francis clearly envisioned the message to be universal, it is to be seen whether the Vatican norms would be changed as per the recent Papal Mass where the pope speaks of brotherhood and love of god for his children.
[Photo by L’Osservatore Romano/AP]