When I was a nun in Rome, I sometimes visited the prison where Pope Francis will wash the feet of 12 young inmates. In those days, I wore a white sari as one of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity.
In 1980, I helped prepare 12 indigent men who lived in our shelter near the Coliseum when Pope John Paul II washed their feet during Holy Thursday Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Before the pope got close, we had to make sure the men's feet were scrubbed squeaky clean, their toenails perfectly trimmed.
These days, like one in three Americans raised Catholic, I don't consider myself Catholic anymore. Nonetheless, as Pope Francis travels to Casal del Marmo, I find myself watching with hope -- and a few questions.
From my 15 years in Rome, I know that the decision for a pope to celebrate a Holy Week Mass outside a Roman basilica will disappoint throngs of pilgrims. Nonetheless, Pope Francis' decision to visit Casal del Marmo is consistent with his practice as Archbishop of Buenos Aires to celebrate Holy Thursday in a prison, hospital or hospice. In 2001, Bergoglio visited an Argentinian hospice where he washed and kissed the feet of 12 AIDS patients.
The nearly 50 young inhabitants of Casal del Marmo are juveniles for whom the Italian justice system and social services were unable to find better solutions; Casal del Marmo is the detention center of last resort. Though its population is in continual flux, a recent count listed nine girls and 39 boys -- of whom only two girls and six boys were Italian. Most of the inhabitants of Casal del Marmo are Muslims.
Padre Gaetano Greca, chaplain of Casal del Marmo since 1981, still possessing that amiable yet clearly in-control look that I remember from the days I visited the prison, confirmed on Italian television that when the pope stoops to wash the feet of 12 inmates, he will kneel before young people who hail from various religious traditions. Padre Gaetano explained, "Religion is important, but when we look at the human reality, I believe other things are more important: God, who is the father of all."
It is truly remarkable that those chosen to represent the apostles in this papal ceremony will not all be Christians. What would be even more remarkable, and unfortunately less likely, is if even one girl is included in this number. Will the pope send a signal that the Catholic Church still considers being male more important than being Christian when it comes to representing Christ's apostles?
Yet another question: When Pope Francis seeks the poor, does he choose to speak at them, or does he really listen? As a Jesuit provincial superior during the years of the military junta in Argentina, Bergoglio refused to allow his priests to move into Christian "base communities." In this refusal, he signaled, among other things, that he preferred a hierarchical model of Church to a more communitarian one in which the desires and opinions of those at the bottom hold primacy.
Holy Thursday's liturgy assigns the priest the role of Jesus, but as pope, Francis also takes on the role of Peter. When he listens to the Gospel account of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles, with which role will Pope Francis choose to identify? Francis is already noted for his Christ-like humility. Peter at first refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet, then later than night denied Jesus three times. Will Francis be able to identify himself as one who has sometimes fallen short? As the representative of a Church guilty of covering up clerical sexual abuse and complicit at least institutionally and perhaps personally in Argentina's Dirty War, will Francis take the opportunity provided by a Holy Thursday Mass with adolescent offenders to admit that the Pope, like Peter, needs to both apologize and make reparation?
According to L'Osservatore Romano, a Caritas worker in the penal institute said that on hearing news of the pope's visit, one of the youngsters exclaimed: "At last I'll get to meet someone who says he is my father!"
These young people, so needy, so often ignored, should be the center of the pope's attention and ours as he visits them. But every papal action is also symbolic, and the decisions made during Francis' first Holy Thursday as pope will signal much about just what sort of father Francis will be: a loving father who values his daughters as much as his sons, who truly listens and is willing to admit his own mistakes, or a father who signals merely a shift in papal style but not in substance?