Pope washes feet of former mafia in prison during pre-Easter ritual

Pope washes feet of former mafia in prison during pre-Easter ritual
Pope Francis has washed the feet of more than a dozen inmates during his visit to an Italian high-security prison for former mafia members in a pre-Easter ritual to spread the message of hope and love.

The pope celebrated Holy Thursday Mass at the Paliano detention center, the only Italian prison dedicated to specifically housing mafia turncoats some 75 kilometers southeast of Rome.

Out of 70 inmates serving sentences at the facility, about 50 are former mafia members known as "collaborators of justice," who are cooperating with authorities hoping to commute their sentences.

The prison holds mostly former members of Italy's three notorious organized crime groups – the Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the Ndrangheta – with many of the inmates serving lengthy terms.

As part of the mass, the pontiff bent to wash and kiss the right foot of 12 inmates in commemoration of Jesus' gesture of humility towards his 12 apostles on the night before he was crucified.

Two of the inmates, who participated in the ceremony are serving life sentences while the remaining 10 are due to be released between 2019 and 2073.

According to the Vatican, three of the inmates were women and one was a born Muslim who had converted to Catholicism. The group consisted of 10 Italians, an Albanian and a prisoner from the pope’s homeland of Argentina, who had earlier written to him, as reported by Reuters.

It is the third Holy Thursday that Francis has spent at a detention center. He described his decision to continue to celebrate Holy Thursday with prisoners as “a duty which comes from my heart,” as reported by Vatican Radio.

With this move, Pope Francis has changed the tradition followed by his predecessors who held Holy Thursday Mass either at the Vatican or a Rome basilica and only washed the feet of Catholic men.

The pope said the ritual should be open to "all members of the people of God” and stressed the importance of going out to serve the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned.

"It is good for us to break out of our set ways, because it is proper to the heart of God to overflow with tenderness, with ever more to give," the pope said in a tweet before arriving at Paliano prison.

He also said that by washing the feet of inmates, he was willing to do "the work of a slave in order to sow love among us" and urged the prisoners to help each other. "If you can do something, a service for your companions in prison, do it," he said, adding that “this is love … to be the servant of others,” AP reports.

"We are all sinners. We all have defects," the pope told the inmates during an improvised sermon broadcasted by Vatican Radio. At the same time, he condemned organized crime groups, saying their members indulge in the "the adoration of evil,” adding that the same time – and although they excommunicated themselves from the Church by their actions – they could return if they repented.

World must stop lords of war

The pontiff also gave an interview to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, in which he once again urged the international community to stop violence and restore peace.

“I think today sin is manifested with all its destructive force in war, in different forms of violence and mistreatment,” he said in the interview, adding that people are now facing “a terrible world war fought piecemeal.”

He went on to say that the world “must stop the lords of war,” who are “the only few” ones benefiting from the present state of affairs while “the helpless” are those, “who suffer the most.”

Pope Francis warned that “responding to violence with violence” could lead to “the physical and spiritual death of many people, if not of all” of them.

"All I want is to call even more strongly for peace for this world subjugated by arms traffickers who profit from the blood of men and women," Francis told the newspaper. "Violence is no cure for our broken world."

The pope is expected to participate in the torch-lit procession at Rome's Colosseum re-enacting Christ's crucifixion on Friday, as well as to lead the late-night Easter vigil on Saturday and Easter Sunday Mass.