VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis will wash the feet of young refugees during an Easter Week ritual in a gesture high in symbolism inside the Catholic Church and beyond.
The Vatican didn’t say Tuesday if non-Catholics would be among the 12 refugees participating in the Holy Thursday rite at an asylum center in Castelnuovo di Porto, north of Rome. But women will almost certainly be involved, and a Vatican official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, noted that most of the center’s residents are non-Catholic.
The ritual is meant to be a gesture of service, and re-enacts a rite Jesus performed on his apostles before being crucified.
Within weeks of becoming pope, Francis stunned conservatives by washing the feet of women, Orthodox Christians and Muslims at a juvenile detention facility. In subsequent years, he has washed the feet of other Muslims and even a Brazilian Catholic transsexual at Rome’s main prison.
Vatican rules had long called for only men to participate, and popes past and many priests traditionally performed the ritual on 12 Catholic men, recalling Jesus’ 12 apostles and further cementing the doctrine of an all-male priesthood.
But Francis in January changed the regulations to explicitly allow women and girls to participate.
The new norms said anyone from the “people of God” could be chosen. While the phrase “people of God” refers to baptized Christians, the decree also said that pastors should instruct “both the chosen faithful and others so that they may participate in the rite consciously, actively and fruitfully,” suggesting that the rite could be open to non-Catholics as well.
Fisichella, who is spearheading Francis’ Holy Year of Mercy initiative, said the choice of the refugee center was highly symbolic given the current migration crises.
“He means to tell us that at this historic time, we must pay attention to the weakest and that we are called to restore their dignity without falling into subterfuge,” Fisichella wrote in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
The fact that most of the residents aren’t Catholic “is an even more eloquent” sign that respecting one another is the best path to peace, he wrote.
“By washing the refugees’ feet, Pope Francis is asking for respect for each one of them,” he wrote.