Pope Francis breaks with tradition in annual ritual by washing the feet of women only

Pope Francis washes and kisses the feet of 12 women inmates of the Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome on Holy Thursday, March 28, 2024, a ritual meant to emphasize his vocation of service and humility.

By Christopher Lamb

Pope Francis on Thursday has washed the feet of 12 women at a prison in Rome during a ceremony emphasizing humility. It is the first time the pope has washed the feet of women only during the special annual service.

The 87-year-old pontiff, who has been experiencing health and mobility difficulties recently, led the ceremony at Rebibbia prison in Rome, washing the feet of each of the women from his wheelchair, many of whom were in tears as he did so.

The foot-washing ritual takes place on the Thursday before Easter and seeks to imitate Jesus Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet the night before he died.

Since his election, the pope has taken this ceremony out of Vatican territory and celebrated by washing the feet of prisoners, refugees and the disabled.

Over the years, Francis has washed the feet of women and Muslims. However, Michael Walsh, a prominent church historian and author, and Fr Anthony Ruff, a liturgical expert, both told CNN they believe this is the first time a pope has washed the feet of women exclusively during the ceremony.

Nadia Fontana, the director of the female prison in Rome where the event took place, said it was the first time a pope had entered their facility, which she said held 360 prisoners and one child.

In the early years of his pontificate, the pope changed church rules to officially include women in the ceremony, a move that met resistance in the Vatican.

His predecessor, Benedict XVI, only washed the feet of men, and later switched to washing only the feet of priests.

Pope Francis unexpectedly skipped delivering his homily during the Palm Sunday Mass service at the Vatican last week, although he was able to preside over the service and was later driven around in the popemobile.

The service marked the beginning of Holy Week, the most sacred week in the church’s calendar as Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter, and his decision to skip the homily, or reflection, was a surprise.

The pontiff has in recent weeks had aides read out several of his speeches after suffering from a bout of ill health. On February 28, he was admitted to hospital for tests. Over the winter months, Francis has battled with bouts of bronchitis, cold and flu.

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