VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis will celebrate all the traditional ceremonies of Holy Week this year, but he will again depart from tradition on Holy Thursday by washing the feet of elderly and disabled residents in a Roman care home.
Before the Easter Triduum, the Holy Father, who began Holy Week by celebrating Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, will first wish a happy birthday to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who turns 87 on Holy Wednesday.
It’s not clear how Francis will send his birthday wishes, but he may visit the pope emeritus at his Mater Ecclesiae residence in the Vatican Gardens before or soon after he holds his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
The same day, the Pope will distribute 1,200 pocket-sized copies of the Gospel to detainees in the Roman prison of “Regina Coeli”. The booklets will be given out by Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner.
On the morning of Holy Thursday, the Pope will celebrate his second chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Mass manifests the unity of the priests with their bishop, and, as is tradition, the Holy Father will bless three oils (holy chrism, catechumens and the infirm) to be used in the administration of the sacraments throughout the diocese for the year.
Last year, Pope Francis gave one of his most memorable homilies to date when he exhorted priests to “go out” to the outskirts of society in order to “experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy.” He said priests who are managers, who don’t put their own skin and heart on the line, grow dissatisfied, instead of being shepherds “living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’”
Then at 5pm on Holy Thursday, the Pope will leave his St. Martha residence and be driven to the Centro Santa Maria della Provvidenza Don Carlo Gnocchi care home. Once there, he will celebrate the In Coena Domini Mass (Mass of the Lord’s Supper) with residents, staff and their families, and he will wash the feet of the residents, many of whom are elderly and have disabilities.
A ‘Powerful’ — and Controversial — Gesture
The foot-washing ritual is rooted in the story of the Last Supper, when Jesus humbles himself and washes the feet of his apostles on the eve of his death. Traditionally, priests have washed the feet of sub-deacons, clergy or laymen, as an example of service.
Last year, the Pope caused controversy when he washed the feet of 12 young people at a Roman Juvenile Detention Center, especially because two were young women, and two were Muslims. The Code of Canon Law states that only men (viri selecti) can have their feet washed.
It’s not yet clear whether the Pope will again wash the feet of women this year, but speaking on behalf of the Vatican, Basilian Father Thomas Rosica stressed to reporters on April 15 that the washing of the feet is a gesture of “ultimate humble service, not of power or privilege.”
“One can easily understand that, in a great celebration, men would be chosen for the foot-washing, because Jesus himself washed the feet of the Twelve Apostles, who were male,” he said.
But recalling that the Pope washed the feet of young men and women when he was cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, Father Rosica said, “To have excluded the young women from the ritual washing of feet on Holy Thursday night in a Roman prison-detention juvenile detention center last year would have detracted our attention from the essence of the Holy Thursday Gospel and the very beautiful and simple gesture of a father who desired to embrace those who were on the fringes of society.”
“That Pope Francis washed the feet of young men and women on his first Holy Thursday as pope should call our minds and hearts to the simple and spontaneous gestures of love, affection, forgiveness and mercy that have been the hallmarks of the current Bishop of Rome, more than to legalistic, liturgical or canonical discussions and debates among those who do not yet understand Pope Francis’ love for and outreach to those on the peripheries of society,” continued Father Rosica.
Pope Francis has “taught the world profound messages over the past year,” he added, and he said he “has brought many to Jesus Christ through the simplicity of his messages and gestures.”
“Let those who have eyes to see and ears to hear understand the powerful ritual and gesture that the Vicar of Christ is offering us,” Father Rosica said.
The Vatican has said that, like last year and in previous years in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis’ choice of venue for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper will have a “special nature, from a pastoral point of view.” For this reason, it added, celebration in a basilica (in the past, the washing of the feet took place in the Basilica of St. John Lateran) or the participation by a large number of faithful won’t be possible. The prefecture of the papal household also won’t be distributing tickets, nor will it be televised live.
On Good Friday, at 5pm, the Holy Father will attend the celebration of the Lord’s Passion in St. Peter’s Basilica, with the homily given by the papal preacher, Franciscan Father Raniero Cantalamessa. At 9:15pm, the Pope will then lead his second Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) at the Colosseum.
This year, the meditations of the 14 Stations of the Cross have been written by Archbishop Giancarlo Maria Bregantini of Campobasso-Boiano, president of the Italian bishops’ Commission for Social Problems, Labor, Justice and Peace.
The introduction cites the Gospel of John: “He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken.’”
Referring to another passage of Scripture — ‘‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (Zechariah, 12:10) — Archbishop Bregantini writes: “Loveable Jesus, you climbed Golgotha without a moment’s hesitation, the fulfillment of love, and you allowed yourself to be crucified without complaint.”
On Holy Saturday, at 8:30pm, in the Papal Chapel of the Vatican basilica, the Pope will celebrate the Easter vigil. And on Easter Sunday, at 10:15am in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope will celebrate Mass, followed by giving his message and blessing urbi et orbi (to the city of Rome and to the world) from the loggia of the basilica.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.