ROME - Pope Francis washed and kissed the feet of a dozen inmates, including two young women, at a juvenile detention center in a surprising departure from church rules that restrict the Holy Thursday ritual to men.
The Mass was held in the Casal del Marmo facility in Rome, where 46 young men and women currently are detained. Many of them are Gypsies or North African migrants, and the 12 selected for the foot-washing rite reportedly included Orthodox and Muslim detainees.
Because the inmates were mostly minors - the facility houses inmates aged 14-to-21 - the Vatican and Italian Justice Ministry limited media access inside. But Vatican Radio carried the Mass live, and in his homily Francis told the detainees that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion in a gesture of love and service.
"This is a symbol, it is a sign - washing your feet means I am at your service," Francis told the youngsters. "Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service."
Later, the Vatican released a limited video of the ritual, showing Francis washing black feet, white feet, male feet, female feet and even a foot with tattoos. Kneeling on the stone floor as the 12 youngsters sat above him, the 76-year-old Francis poured water from a silver chalice over each foot, dried it with a simple cotton towel and then bent over to kiss each one.
Previous popes carried out the foot-washing ritual on Holy Thursday in Rome's grand St. John Lateran basilica. The 12 people chosen for the ritual were always priests to represent the 12 apostles whose feet Christ washed during the Last Supper before his crucifixion.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would celebrate the ritual foot-washing in jails, hospitals or hospices - part of his ministry to the poorest and most marginalized of society. He would often involve women: photographs from his days in Buenos Aires show him washing the feet of a woman holding her newborn child in her arms.
That Francis would include women in his inaugural Holy Thursday Mass as pope, however, was remarkable given current liturgical rules restrict the ritual to men.
Canon lawyer Edward Peters, who is an adviser to the Holy See's top court, noted in a blog that the Congregation for Divine Worship in 1988 sent a letter to bishops making clear that "The washing of the feet of chosen men ... represents the service and charity of Christ who came 'not to be served, but to serve."'
Peters noted that bishops over the years have successfully petitioned Rome for an exemption to allow women to participate, but that the law on the issue is clear.
"By disregarding his own law in this matter, Francis violates, of course, no divine directive," Peters wrote Thursday. "What he does do, I fear, is set a questionable example," particularly as it regards adherence to liturgical rules.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said he didn't want to enter into a canonical dispute over the matter. He said in a "grand solemn celebration" of the rite, it would make sense to only involve men because during the Last Supper, Christ washed the feet of the 12 apostles, all of whom were male.
"Here, the rite was for a small, unique community made up also of women," Lombardi said in an email to The Associated Press. "It was a specific situation in which excluding the girls would have been inopportune in light of the simple aim of communicating a message of love to all in a group that certainly didn't include refined experts in liturgical rules."
Others on the more liberal side of the liturgical spectrum welcomed the novel example Francis set.
"The pope's washing the feet of women is hugely significant because including women in this part of the Holy Thursday Mass has been frowned on - and even banned - in some dioceses," said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of "The Jesuit Guide."
"It shows the all-embracing love of Christ, who ministered to all he met: man or woman, slave or free, Jew or Gentile," he said.
After the Mass, Francis greeted each of the inmates and gave each one an Easter egg. In exchange, he was given a wooden cross and kneeler that the inmates made in their workshop.
"Don't lose hope," Francis said. "Understand? With hope you can always go on."
One of the inmates then asked him why he had come to visit them. Francis said it was to "help me to be humble, as a bishop should be." He said he wanted to come "from my heart. Things from the heart don't have an explanation."
Italian Justice Minister Paola Severino, who has made easing Italy's woefully overcrowded prisons a priority, also attended the Mass.