VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis has celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to mark Holy Thursday, hours before he was expected at an Italian prison to perform a foot-washing ritual for a dozen inmates in a gesture of humility.
Attending the Mass were some 1,800 priests. Francis in his homily advised priests not to focus on worldly concerns such as power, planning and bureaucracy. He exhorted them to “serve, with a clear conscience, the holy and faithful people of God.”
Francis made no reference to decades of scandals involving priests who sexually abused children and were often transferred from parish to parish by bishops who tried to avoid embarrassment rather than protect minors.
In the afternoon, the 85-year-old Francis is expected at a prison in Civitavecchia, a port town 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of Rome, for the foot-washing ceremony which recalls Jesus’ gesture of humility for his apostles.
Francis has made paying attention to those on society’s margins — including refugees, migrants and people in prisons — a hallmark of his papacy. On Holy Thursday in past years, he has gone to prisons in or near Rome.
This year finds him struggling with mobility issues. Francis suffers pain from a knee ligament problem and for years has been plagued by sciatica, a nerve inflammation affecting the legs and back.
During the Holy Thursday Mass, large urns of oil are blessed for use in ceremonies in churches in the Rome area. When Francis went to bless the oil by breathing into it, an aide helped him rise from his chair and walk toward the silver urn. At the end of the ceremony, Francis descended the steps down from the altar clinging to an aide’s arm, and even while assisted limped his way out of the basilica.
Holy Week, which draws hundreds of thousands of faithful to the Vatican, began with Palm Sunday Mass on April 10 in St. Peter’s Square.
This year, the Good Friday torch-lit Way of the Cross procession returns to its traditional venue at the ancient Colosseum after a two-year absence due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Vatican has invited a Russian woman and a Ukrainian woman, who work together at a Rome hospital, to carry a cross together during the procession. That has angered some Ukrainians, including Ukraine’s ambassador to the Holy See and the archbishop of Kyiv. Their objections center on whether such a gesture, implying reconciliation, is suitable, given Russia’s invasion of its neighbor Ukraine and ongoing war against the country’s people.
The Vatican is still going ahead with the procession’s lineup of participants, who take turns carrying a lightweight cross during the procession, which is presided over by the pontiff and recalls Jesus’ death by crucifixion.
Holy Week culminates on Easter Sunday.