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Pope washes feet of disabled on Holy Thursday

April 18, 2014 - “In the humbling act of washing his disciples' feet, Jesus made Himself a servant - our servant. And he chose this path out of love saying, ‘You too must love and serve one another in love.’ This is the legacy that Jesus has left us.” Pope Francis made this exhortation during the evening Mass on Holy Thursday at a rehabilitation facility on the outskirts of Rome, where he washed the feet of four women and eight men who are living with disabilities.

Holy Thursday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates Jesus’ surprise gesture of washing the feet of his disciples as an example of service to one another. Previous popes always held the ceremony either in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican or Rome's Basilica of Saint John Lateran and only included 12 Catholic men - usually priests – at the service. But Pope Francis, continuing a tradition he started as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentine, last year held the first Holy Thursday’ Mass of the Lord’s Supper, barely 2 weeks after his election, among the inmates of a juvenile detention centre in Rome, washing the feet of 12 of them.

This year, Pope chose to celebrate the Holy Thursday evening liturgy at Our Lady of Providence rehabilitation centre run by the Don Gnocchi Foundation. Ranging in ages from 16 to 86, nine of the 12 patients were Italian, one was a Muslim businessman from Libya, one a woman from Ethiopia and a young Catholic man from Cape Verde. During the liturgy held in the centre's chapel, two sisters helped patients, all of them with limited mobility, remove their shoes and socks. The pope then knelt on both knees on a small cushion before each person. He poured water from a small silver pitcher over each person's foot; some feet were greatly swollen due to the individual's medical condition. With a white towel, he dried each foot and kissed it, often having to bend onto the floor to reach the feet of those who were completely paralyzed. Two aides assisted the Pope in kneeling and standing back up, which proved increasingly difficult as the 77-year-old pope made his way across the chapel to all 12 patients. Yet, before rising, he gave each one of them a long and loving gaze and broad smile.

The gesture of Jesus was like a parting gift and "an inheritance" that he left out of love, the pope explained during the Mass. "You, too, must love each other, be servants in love," he said in a brief impromptu homily. He asked people to think of ways "how we can serve others better - that's what Jesus wanted from us."

A large number of patients, their relatives as well as the facility's religious and lay staff, directors and volunteers attended the Pope’s Mass. 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 marked the beat with a triangle.

Msgr. Angelo Bazzarri, president of the Father Gnocchi Foundation, told Vatican Radio April 17 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 center, the pope was showing the kind of "evangelical mercy that he wants to embrace the entire world of suffering," he said.

The evening 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, with the priests, bishops and cardinals of his diocese of Rome. But others too attended the Mass.


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