Saving by serving is what Jesus did when he washed his disciples’ feet. In washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus teaches us the importance of humility and service that are born of a noble heart. Pope Francis repeated this gesture and reflected on its meaning on Holy Thursday, 6 April, with inmates at Rome’s Casal del Marmo juvenile detention centre, on the outskirts of Rome, where he carried out the traditional rite of the washing of the feet of 12 young detainees. The Holy Father celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the prison chapel. The following is a translation of his extemporaneous homily.
What attracts our attention is how Jesus, just the day before he is crucified, accomplishes this deed. Foot washing was customary at that time because the streets were dusty. People would come in from outside and, upon entering a house, before a banquet or a gathering, they would wash their feet. But who would wash their feet? The slaves, because this was a slave’s job.
Let us imagine how astonished the disciples were when they saw Jesus beginning to perform this task fit for slaves. But he does it to make them understand the message for the next day when he would die like a slave to pay the debt for all of us. If we were to listen to these things about Jesus, life would be so beautiful because we would hurry to help each other out instead of cheating one another, taking advantage of each other, the way sly people teach us. It is very beautiful to help each other, to lend a hand — these are human, universal gestures that are born from a noble heart. And with this celebration today, Jesus wants to teach us this: the nobility of the heart. Each one of us could say: “But if the Pope only knew of the things I have inside….” But Jesus knows that, and he loves us just as we are! And he washes each of our feet. Jesus is never frightened by our weaknesses. He is never astonished, because he has already paid. He just wants to accompany us; he wants to take us by the hand so that life won’t be so harsh for us. I will perform the same deed of the washing of the feet, which is not something folkloric, no. Let us think of it as a gesture that tells us how we should treat each other. In society, we see how many people take advantage of others; how many people are in a corner and can’t get out. How many injustices, how many people without jobs, how many people who work and are paid half [of their wages], how many people who have no money to purchase medicine, how many destroyed families, so many awful things….
And none of us can say, “Thank God, I am not like that, you know”. “If I am not like that it is because of the grace of God!” Each one of us can slip, every one of us. And this awareness, this certainty that each of us can slip, is what gives us the dignity — listen to the word: the “dignity” — of being sinners. And Jesus wants us like this, and because of this he wanted to wash [his disciples’] feet and say: “I came to save you, to serve you”. Now, I will do the same thing as a memory of what Jesus taught us: to help each other. And in this way, life is more beautiful and we can carry on like this. During the washing of the feet — I hope I succeed in doing it because I cannot walk that well — but during the washing of the feet, think about this: “Jesus has washed my feet. Jesus has saved me, and I have this difficulty now”. But it will pass. The Lord is always next to you; he never abandons, never. Think about this.