News Headlines > Pope washes feet of ex-gang members in mafia prison during Holy Thursday liturgy

14 April 2017 | by Christopher Lamb

Pope washes feet of ex-gang members in mafia prison during Holy Thursday liturgy

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Holy Thursday liturgy celebrated by Francis at Paliano, a specialist prison for ex-mafia who became informers

Pope Francis commemorated Jesus’ Last Supper by washing the feet of prisoners who have turned away from a life of organised crime, including three women and a Muslim man soon to be received into the Church. 

During the Holy Thursday liturgy at Paliano prison, 40 miles south of Rome, Francis made a gesture of radical Christian service by kneeling down to wash and kiss the feet of 12 former gang members. The prison is in a fortress style building once used as a detention centre by the papal states: today, it is used exclusively for ex-mafia who have decided to collaborate with state authorities. 

The Pope, who once boldly declared all mafia were excommunicated during a visit to the mob stronghold in Calabria, southern Italy, stressed that Jesus showed he was the “Capo” - or boss - by serving and washing his disciples’ feet.  

“Today, in the street, when I arrived, there were people who greeted me saying: “Here is the Pope, the head. The boss of the church,’ ” Francis explained. “[But] the head of the Church is Jesus: no joking! The Pope is the image of Jesus and I want to do the same as him.”

While decades ago it held members of the Red Brigades guerrilla group today it holds former members of Italy's three notorious crime groups - the Cosa Nostra from Sicily, the Camorra from Naples and the ‘Ndrangheta from Calabria. 

Throughout his papacy, Francis has used the Mass of the Lord’s Supper as a symbol of papal humility and his mission to the marginalised. Soon after his 2013 election as Pope he travelled to Rome’s Casal del Marmo youth detention centre where he made history by washing the feet of both women and Muslim inmates. 

And last year he went to the Castelnuovo di Porto centre for asylum seekers where he included Muslims and Hindus among the twelve who had their feet washed, and two years ago performed the same service at Rome’s Rebibbia prison, a number of whom were moved to tears by the experience.   

The centre at Paliano has 70 inmates and is the only prison in Italy used solely for former gang members now helping police and the judiciary. In other institutions the “penitenti" - as they are commonly known - are placed in separate wings of a prison and in some cases have to undergo plastic facial surgery in order to avoid detection by current mafia members. 

The Holy Thursday liturgy was celebrated at Paliano prison, 40 miles south of Rome


Among those whose feet the Pope washed on Thursday were 10 Italians, an Albanian and an Argentinian, one of Francis fellow countrymen who had written to him. The Muslim man who is converting will be baptised in June.

Two of the 12 are serving life sentences while the others are due to be released between 2019 and 2023: this ensures they have time to take part in the prison’s vocational training programmes including pottery, bakery, carpenter, faming and bee-keeping. In honour of Francis’ visit inmates gave him gifts including farm produce, eggs, honey and wooden crucifix. 

The Pope’s decision to wash the feet of women during the Holy Thursday liturgy in 2013 ruffled feathers among traditionalists who pointed out that Church rules prohibited females taking part in the service in order to symbolise the sending out of Christ’s twelve, male-only disciples. 

But last year Francis decreed that the ritual would be open to women so that “it might express more fully the meaning of Jesus' gesture… His giving of Himself unto the end for the salvation of the world, His limitless charity”.

Before the decree it had already been common practice for parishes to include both sexes in the foot washing rite, while senior Vatican liturgist, Archbishop Arthur Roche, pointed out that the Pope’s change was a return to the pre-1955 tradition where both female and male laity were washed.

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