By Philippa Hitchen
Since the start of his pontificate, Pope Francis has chosen to celebrate the Mass of Our Lord’s Supper outside the Vatican, travelling to detention centres and a home for the disabled to wash the feet of prisoners, refugees and other marginalized people. It is a tradition that he began as archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he would regularly mark the Holy Thursday liturgy in local jails..
Regina Coeli is Rome’s oldest and best known prison, housing inmates from over sixty different nationalities. Situated just a stone’s throw from the Vatican, along the banks of the River Tiber, it was built on the site of a 17th century convent that was converted into a jail in the late 19th century.
Problems of overcrowding and suicide
Like other prisons in Italy, it has made news headlines for problems of overcrowding and high suicide rates. During his visit, the Pope will greet inmates, visit the sick in the prison infirmary and meet prisoners held in a section for those needing special protection during their incarceration.
As part of the celebration of Mass there, he will kneel down with a towel and a basin of water to wash the feet of twelve inmates, imitating Jesus’ gesture of humility and service.
Pope to wash feet of Christians, Muslims, Buddhist
The twelve men, selected by prison authorities, come from Italy, the Philippines, Morocco, Moldavia, Columbia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Eight of them are Catholics, while two are Muslims, one is a Buddhist and one is an Orthodox Christian.
In 2013, shortly after his election as Pope, Francis visited a youth detention centre, where he chose, for the first time, to wash the feet of some women and non-Christians, leading to a change in the liturgical regulations laid down in the Roman Missal. He has also met with men and women in detention centres on most of his pastoral visits abroad.
Fourth pontiff to visit Regina Coeli
Previous pontiffs have also visited the Regina Coeli prison: Pope John XXIII in 1958, Pope Paul VI in 1964, and Pope John Paul II in the year 2000.