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Non-Catholics and women were among the 12 disabled and elderly people whose feet Pope Francis washed and kissed when he celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper this evening.
Francis was visiting the Father Carlo Gnocchi Foundation's Our Lady of Providence Centre, a rehabilitation and care centre on the outskirts of Rome for people with disabilities and the elderly.
Francis knelt down, washed, dried and kissed the feet of four women and eight men, some in wheelchairs, some with swollen and disfigured feet. They ranged in ages from 16 to 86. Two aides assisted the 77-year-old Pope to kneel and stand up again.
On Maundy Thursday last year he washed the feet of young offenders – including a Muslim woman – at a centre in Rome, surprising commentators and angering traditionalists because the 12 included women.
Previous popes have conducted the liturgy in St John Lateran or St Peter’s Basilica. Francis has frequently spoken about the need for the Church to go to those who are on the margins of society. Before he was elected pope, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would celebrate the Maundy Thursday liturgy in prisons, hospitals or homeless shelters in Buenos Aires and often washed the feet of women.
The Vatican said that the 12 selected to take part in this year’s service came from various religious confessions and comprised nine Italians, a Muslim from Libya, a young man from Cape Verde and an Ethiopian woman.
He said they had all received support from the foundation to overcome the difficulties, marginalisation and isolation they often face on account of their age or a disability.
Francis told the patients, their relatives and the facility's staff at the service that he was washing people’s feet to remind himself how to serve others, just as Jesus did when he washed the feet of his apostles.
"Jesus made a gesture, a job, the service of a slave, a servant," he said. "And he leaves this legacy to us: We need to be servants to one another."
"You, too, must love each other, be servants in love," he said in a brief homily, which he delivered off the cuff.
He asked people to think of ways "how we can serve others better - that's what Jesus wanted from us."
Held in the centre's large chapel, which was dotted with bright stained-glass windows, the Mass was the second of two Holy Thursday liturgies over which the Pope presided. The first was a morning chrism Mass in St Peter's Basilica.
Medical personnel and other staff members did the readings while staff and patients, some seated in wheelchairs, provided the singing and music: one person played acoustic guitar, another beat time with a triangle.
Mgr Angelo Bazzarri, president of the Father Gnocchi Foundation, told Vatican Radio that the Pope's decision to wash the feet of patients with different abilities, ages and religious convictions was meant to reflect the "universal gesture of a God who became man, who serves all of humanity".
By choosing to visit the rehabilitation centre, the Pope was showing the kind of "evangelical mercy that he wants to embrace the entire world of suffering," he said.