Pope Francis recently washed and kissed the feet of 12 migrants with the hope of bringing together different religions and cultures in a symbolic gesture that came only two days after a carefully orchestrated terror attack in Brussels. An attack that sparked anti-Islamic sentiments across Europe yet again.
“All of us together: Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Copts, Evangelicals. But all brothers and children of the same God,” the Pontiff said during Holy Thursday celebrations at a migrant reception center that houses close to 900 asylum-seekers in Castelnuovo di Porto, north of Rome. “We want to live together in peace.”
He called the terror attack in Belgium’s capital an act of war by individuals who do not want to live in peace.
The mass was part of a very significant Easter ritual that involves washing the feet of select people, commemorating the rite Christ carried out with his apostles before being crucified. Francis’ repeated inclusion of women and non-Catholics in this ceremony year after year has stirred several debates in the past.
This year, four women and eight men were invited for the ceremony. Five of these individuals were Catholics, three Muslims, three Coptic Christians and one Hindu. The Vatican newspaper identified them as 22-year-old Mohamed Alhalabi, a pastry chef from Syria; 26-year-old Luchia Mesfun, who fled from Eritrea; Kbra Tesfamicael and Lucia Yrgalem from Eritrea; Kunal Sharma from India; Khurram Shahzad from Pakistan; Sira Madigata from Mali; Endurance Okosum, Osma Bole, Miminu Bright Osumah and Shadrach Osahon from Nigeria; and Angela Ferri, who runs the migrant reception center where the ceremony took place. More than half the refugees at the center happen to be Muslims, a quarter Christians and two Hindus.
“We have different cultures and religions, but we are brothers and we want to live in peace,” Francis said before washing and kissing the feet of the migrants, some of whom were moved to tears.
During morning mass at St Peter’s Basilica on March 27, Francis attempted to highlight the growing need for mercy among people of different faiths.
“Mercy restores everything; it restores dignity to each person,” he said.
Addressing thousands of priests at the mass, Francis said they should stay connected with the poor and marginalized.
“As priests we identify with people who are excluded,” he said. “We remind ourselves that there are countless masses of people who are poor, uneducated, prisoners, who find themselves in such situations because others oppress them.”
Francis also shed light on the fact that priests are sometimes blind to the suffering of others, explaining how excessive complicated theology or unnecessary bubbly spirituality may be the reason behind such apathy.
“We feel ourselves also trapped; not so much by insurmountable stone walls or steel enclosures that affect many peoples, but rather by a digital, virtual worldliness that is opened and closed by a simple click,” he said. “We are oppressed –not by threats and pressures like so many poor people– but by the allure of a thousand commercial advertisements which we cannot shrug off.”
The service on March 24, known as Chrism Mass, also saw the Pontiff blessing sacred oils that would be used for the Easter vigil and similar liturgical celebrations through the coming year.
In the meanwhile, security was stepped up across Italy with additional police forces being placed on duty at the Vatican. Others sought after tourist sites over the weekend as Europe tried to recover from the deadly terrorist attack in Belgium that killed more than 30 people and injured hundreds of others. Amid the tightest security ever for an outdoor mass at the Vatican –which still managed to draw as many as 200,000 believers– Francis condemned the blind and brutal acts of terrorism that have been afflicted across Europe, Africa as well as the Middle East.
Speaking from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, Francis lamented over the political and economic difficulties being faced by refugees seeking shelter in European countries.
“This day invites us not to forget those men and women seeking a better future; an ever more numerous throng of migrants and refugees –including many children– fleeing war, hunger, poverty and social injustice,” the Pontiff said.
The papal feet-washing ritual not only served as a signal of openness towards refugees amid such violence but it also cemented the position of women within the Roman Catholic Church. Traditionally, the ritual carried out by the Pope has been on men only. Almost immediately after his election in 2013, the Pontiff shocked conservatives by washing the feet of women and Muslims alongside Orthodox Christians at a prison in Rome. In January this year, Francis officially revised the regulations to explicitly allow women and girls to participate.
A week before Easter, Vatican official Archbishop Rino Fisichella explained that the Pontiff’s choice of refugees was especially important because of the ongoing migration crisis engulfing Europe.
“We can understand the symbolic value intended by Francis,” Fisichella wrote in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. “His actions mean to tell us that it is important to pay due attention to the weakest in this historic moment; that we are all called to restore their dignity without resorting to subterfuge. By washing the feet of refugees, Francis implores respect for each one of them.”
Photo Credits: Catholic Herald