You can show God’s love even behind bars, Pope Francis tells inmates
Pope Francis kisses the feet of an inmate at Paliano prison during Holy Thursday Mass April 13.
ROME, Italy— Pope Francis spent Holy Thursday washing the feet of inmates, telling them in a brief homily that God is someone who loves until the end. He urged them to imitate this love even while in prison.
“Having loved his people who were in the world, he loved them to the end. God loves like this, to the end,” the Pope said April 13. “He gives life to each one of us and he boasts of this because he has love, and to love until the end isn’t easy.”
“We are all sinners and we all have limits and defects,” he said. While we all know how to love, “we are not like God who loves without looking at the consequences.”
He encouraged the inmates to imitate the love Jesus showed in washing the feet of his disciples, saying they didn’t need to get up and take their shoes off, but “if you can act as a help, do a service, here in prison, do it. Because this is love, it’s like washing the feet.”
Pope Francis visited the maximum security facility of Paliano prison in the south of Rome. It houses former mafia collaborators.
The Paliano prison is famous for being the only institution in Italy reserved specifically for “collaborators of justice,” that is, criminals who choose to come clean and collaborate with the police in exchange for police protection and, at times, compensation from the State. As of April 1, there were 70 detainees in the prison.
The visit marks the Pope’s third Holy Thursday visit to a prison since he became pontiff in 2013.
After arriving around 4 p.m. local time, Pope Francis met with the inmates before celebrating the Mass that marks Jesus Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples.
During the celebration, the Pope washed the feet of 12 inmates. Three of these were women and one was a Muslim who will be baptized in June.
All of them were Italians apart from one Argentinian and one Albanian. They are serving sentences for various crimes. And apart from two who have life sentences, the rest are expected to be released between 2019 and 2073.
About 60 collaborators collaborators of justice were present for the Mass. Two of them, a man and a woman, were from solitary confinement. The Pope met with these two privately just before he celebrated Mass.
He also greeted each inmate personally.
In his brief homily, the Pope noted that even though Jesus knew his hour had come and that he would be “betrayed and handed over” by Judas, he still chose to love.
“He who was the head, who was God. He washed the feet of his disciples,” he said, explaining that washing the feet of guests was a custom at that time. Since there were no paved streets, people would frequently arrive full of dust.
According to the custom, “the slaves did this,” he said, adding that “Jesus knew and he did it.”
Pointing to how Peter in the Gospel initially doesn’t want Jesus, the Master, to stoop and wash his feet, Pope Francis said that in the moment Jesus explained “that he came into the world to serve and to serve us. To make himself a slave for us. To love until the end.”
The Pope said that although the Pope is the head of the earthly Church, the true head of the Church is Jesus: “The Pope is only the figure of Jesus and I would like to do the same that he did and the priest washes the feet of his faithful.”
“Whoever is greatest must do the work of a slave,” the Pope said, recalling the Gospel scene where the disciples were fighting among themselves about who was the greatest.
On that occasion, “Jesus said: whoever wants to be the most important must make himself the smallest,” the Pope said, adding that “all of us are poor, but he loves us as we are.”
The washing of the feet, he said, is not “a folk ceremony.” Rather, it is “an act to remember what Jesus did. Let us think of the love of God alone today.”
Inmates at the prison have access to various activities provided by the prison’s institutional projects, such as opportunities for work, education, cultural and recreational activities, religious and sporting events, and meetings with family members.
Some of the courses available to inmates include iconography classes, ceramics, a pizzeria and kitchen for sweets, a carpentry workshop and an agricultural area with organic farming and a zone blocked off for breeding goats, rabbits, chickens and pigs, and for producing honey.
According to an April 13 communique from the Vatican, prison director Nadia Cersosimo has said these efforts are “initiatives that avoid idleness, reduce distances, fight prejudices and open the path to reinsertion.”
The prisoners offered Pope Francis a handmade cross and a buffet prepared with products from their gardens.
The Pope’s decision to visit isn’t surprising given the attention Pope Francis has often given both to prisoners, and to condemnations of mafia activities.
He has often condemned the violence of organized crime. He has made a point to visit prisons in nearly all of the international trips he takes, as well as local trips within Italy.
Right after his election in March of 2013 Francis decided to offer his Holy Thursday Lord’s Supper Mass at the Casal del Marmo youth detention center in Rome. He washed the feet of young men and women, both Christians and Muslims, detained there.
In 2014, Pope Francis said the Holy Thursday Mass at the Don Gnocchi center for the disabled. In 2015 he visited another prison, celebrating Mass at Rome’s Rebibbia prison.
For Holy Thursday in 2016 Pope Francis visited a center for asylum seekers in Castelnuovo di Porto, a municipality just north of Rome. He washed the feet of refugees, who included Muslims, Hindus, and Coptic Orthodox Christians.