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Pope washes prisoners' feet to mark Maundy Thursday

Pope Francis washed the feet of a dozen inmates at a maximum security prison on Maundy Thursday.

During the pre-Easter ritual meant to show his willingness to serve society's most marginal, Francis urged the prisoners to help one another and similarly "be the servant of others".

Francis travelled to the Paliano detention centre, south of Rome, to celebrate Maundy Thursday Mass at the only Italian prison dedicated to housing Mafia turncoats.

These "collaborators of justice" can reduce their sentences by cooperating with anti-Mafia prosecutors.

Many of the inmates are serving lengthy terms: Two of the 12 inmates who participated in the foot-washing ceremony are serving life terms. The remaining 10 are due to be released between 2019 and 2073. Francis also visited two other inmates currently in solitary confinement.

In his homily, Francis reminded the inmates that his gesture of washing their feet re-enacted the gesture of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples before he was crucified, essentially doing the work of a slave out of love.

"If you can do something, a service for your companions in prison, do it," Francis urged them during his homily. "This is love. This is like washing feet: to be the servant of others."

It was the third Maundy Thursday that Francis has spent at a detention centre, part of his long-standing emphasis on ministering to prisoners and the need to give them rehabilitation and hope.

"The Holy Father gave us a message not just of hope, but he told us that the love of God is great and is ready to forgive everyone," prison director Nadia Cersosimo told Vatican Radio.

Paliano has 60 to 70 inmates, including about 50 Mafia turncoats. The prison also houses four women and has a special ward for tuberculosis-infected inmates.

The Vatican said three of the 12 inmates who had their feet washed are women and one is a Muslim who is due to be baptised a Christian in June. Prisoners prepared cakes as gifts and offered the Pope vegetables from the prison's organic garden.

In an interview with La Repubblica, Francis said his emphasis on reaching out to inmates comes from his heart.

"When I'm looking at a prisoner, I ask myself: 'Why him and not me?'" he said. "'Why did he fall and not me?' It's a mystery that brings me closer to them."

Francis opened the most solemn period of the Catholic Church's liturgical calendar by celebrating Mass on Thursday morning in St Peter's Basilica before heading to Paliano.

On Friday, he will participate in the torch-lit procession at Rome's Colosseum, re-enacting Christ's crucifixion.

Saturday brings the late-night Easter vigil, with Easter Sunday Mass the following day.

AP

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