VATICAN CITY • Pope Francis washed the feet of former mafiosi in a prison known for housing inmates who have informed on old mobster allies, as part of a ceremony ahead of Easter Sunday.
The closed-door visit on Thursday to the Paliano prison outside Rome saw the 80-year-old pontiff kneel before a small group of inmates, pouring water over their feet, drying them with a towel and bending to kiss them in an age-old Easter tradition.
"We are all sinners, we all have our limits and our shortcomings," Pope Francis told the prisoners.
The jail's inmates include some 50 former mafiosi who made deals to provide anti-mafia prosecutors with information in exchange for shorter prison sentences, along with other informers, according to the chaplain.
The rite, performed yearly on Maundy or Holy Thursday, commemorates Jesus Christ's Last Supper with the apostles.
In Christian tradition, Jesus is said to have washed their feet ahead of the meal in a gesture of humility.
"The feet-washing ritual dates back to Roman mealtimes because the roads were not paved and people entered houses with their feet covered in dust," Pope Francis explained to the prisoners.
"One of the gestures of welcome made by hosts was to wash their guests' feet. But it would be the slaves that did it. Jesus turned the ritual on its head. He washed them.
"I am not telling you to start washing each other's feet, that would be a joke! But I tell you, if you can help, if you can perform a service for a companion here in prison, do it, because this is love, this is what washing feet is: serving others," he added.
Bishop Domenico Sigalini of Palestrina said that by choosing turncoats for the ceremony, the Pope "wants to send a message to those who chose to repent, those usually judged as villains while often showing a personal maturity and an attempt to change".
The jailbirds presented the Pope with organic vegetables grown in the prison's allotment as well as cakes they had made, a cross fashioned out of olive wood and a white wool cloak.
Since his election in 2013, the Pope has moved the feet-washing ceremony outside the walls of the Vatican and into centres for vulnerable people or those on society's margins.