Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of 12 inmates at a maximum security prison for mafia turncoats on Thursday. The ceremony took place as part of the observances of Maundy Thursday, the Holy Thursday before Easter that commemorates the story of Jesus’ Last Supper.
In a powerful gesture of embrace, the pontiff knelt down before a group of nine men and three women, including one Muslim man, according to Reuters. The group included 10 Italians, one person from Albania and a prisoner from Francis’s native Argentina. The pope also celebrated a Mass for the 70 inmates at the prison, which is housed in a 16th century fortress south of Rome in Paliano, Italy.
The centuries-old tradition evokes the scene from Christian scripture in which Jesus washed the feet of his 12 disciples before he was crucified.
“If you can do something, a service for your companions in prison, do it,” Francis told the inmates during his homily. “This is love. This is like washing feet: to be the servant of others.”
The high-security prison primarily houses prisoners known as “collaborators of justice” ― former members of organized crime groups who have turned evidence over to the state to testify against other members.
The prison held turncoats from the Red Brigades guerrilla group during the 1980s and 1990s, Reuters reports, but now most of the “collaborators of justice” are former members of Italy’s three main organized crime groups ― the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta.
The Argentinian pope has spoken out against “the evil ways” of organized crime. In 2014, he officially excommunicated members of the Italian mafia, saying during a Mass in Calabria: “They are not with God, they are excommunicated.”
But the pontiff has also urged compassion for prisoners and other marginalized populations. In an interview with Italian newspaper La Reppublica published Thursday, he explained his reasoning for visiting inmates on Holy Thursday. “Some say: ‘They are guilty.’ I respond with Jesus’ words: ‘Whoever is not guilty, throw the first stone,’” he said, according to a translation from Crux. “Let’s look inside ourselves and we will come to see our own guilt. And then the heart will become more human.”
Two of the inmates who participated in the ritual foot-washing are serving life sentences, while the other 10 are due to be released between 2019 and 2073. Francis also visited two other inmates currently in solitary confinement, according to the Associated Press.
“The mercy of the good news can never be a false commiseration, one that leaves sinners in their misery without holding out a hand to lift them up and help them take a step in the direction of change,” the pope said in his Chrism Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica Thursday morning.
When the pope arrived at the Paliano prison Thursday afternoon, the inmates greeted him with crosses made from olive tree wood. They gifted him cakes, as well as zucchini, cucumbers and other produce from the prison’s organic garden, according to AP.
In previous years, Francis has observed Maundy Thursday by washing the feet of refugees, the elderly and people with disabilities. Shortly after his election as pope in 2013, the pontiff made waves by including women in his foot washing ceremony at a juvenile detention center.
Previous popes have held the Holy Thursday foot washing ceremony at the Vatican or in a Rome basilica, and they have reserved the ritual for Catholic men. Since his election, Francis has stressed the importance of going out to serve the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. In 2016, he officially decreed that women would be included in the ceremony going forward.