In this photo provided by the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, Pope Francis, with back to camera at right, washes the foot of an inmate at the juvenile detention center of Casal del Marmo, Rome, Thursday, March 28, 2013. Francis washed the feet of a dozen inmates at a juvenile detention center in a Holy Thursday ritual that he celebrated for years as archbishop and is continuing now that he is pope. Two of the 12 were young women, an unusual choice given that the rite re-enacts Jesus' washing of the feet of his male disciples. The Mass was held in the Casal del Marmo facility in Rome, where 46 young men and women currently are detained. Many of them are Gypsies or North African migrants, and the Vatican said the 12 selected for the rite weren't necessarily Catholic. (AP Photo/L'Osservatore Romano, ho) ORG XMIT: XBL103
Updated: May 1, 2013 3:21PM
On this Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, our thoughts are with a pope who shuns the trappings of majesty and washes the feet of outcasts.
Pope Francis is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, but by his words and actions he reminds us all — Catholics and non-Catholics, religious and non-religious — about what matters most in human affairs. Walk with humility. Care for the poor and powerless. Love the sinner. Remember that we are sinners, too.
Francis was elected pope a mere two weeks ago and still needs some serious sizing up. We know that.
And the cure for what ails the church, and ails the world, demands much more than imagery. We know that.
Yet symbolism and imagery are powerful forces in Catholicism, as in every religion, and Pope Francis is sending a clear message of where he believes the church has gone wrong — too much pomp, too much materialism, too much rigidity, too much elitism — and where it must go.
It begins with the choice of whose feet to wash.
Did you see the photos on Thursday? Did you see Francis gently washing and kissing the feet of 12 detainees in a youth jail in Rome?
Two of the young offenders were Muslim. Two were women. One had crude homemade tattoos on his feet.
All popes have bent down and washed feet on Holy Thursday, re-enacting how Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. It is an ancient tradition, an act of service and humility. But all other popes in modern times have washed the pampered feet of 12 fellow cardinals and bishops, in a basilica of breathtaking grandeur. And never, until Francis, did a pope wash the feet of a woman.
Where was the service in that? Where was the humility?
One young inmate asked Pope Francis on Thursday: Why are you doing this?
To “help me be humble, as a bishop should be,” he replied. “Things from the heart don’t have an explanation.”
This is a pope who prefers walking to riding in limos, who chooses to live for now in a two-bed apartment rather than in the opulent Apostolic Palace, who has declined to wear a gold pectoral cross and an ermine-lined mantle.
Is this pope for real?
“This may seem to the cynical a mere show or public relations, and a few of those cynics are in the church,” writes Milwaukee priest Steven Avella, in a column for CNN. “But something tells me this is the real thing.”
Something tells us the same.
But as Avella, a professor of history at Marquette University, also writes, “Eventually, the novelty of all this will fade” and Pope Francis still will face the great challenge of repairing the Catholic Church’s “shattered credibility, especially with young people.”
Who can say yet whether Francis is up to the job.
But he seems to know where to begin.