In a highly symbolic gesture for Easter week, the Pope traveled 15 miles north of Rome to an asylum seeker reception centre in the town of Castelnuovo di Porto.
The ceremony, which comes two days after the Brussels terrorist attacks, took place in the late afternoon. The asylum seeker centre is temporary home to around 900 migrants and refugees, many of whom arrived in Italy by boat from Libya in crossings organized by people smugglers. More than a million refugees and migrants reached Europe last year, the majority crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands of the eastern Aegean.
Of the 892 asylum seekers in the facility, 562 are Muslim while the rest are Christian, including Protestants, Catholics and Copts. The Pope washed the feet of female refugees and Muslim asylum seekers.
“We can understand the symbolic value intended by Pope Francis’ visit to (the centre) in Castelnuovo di Porto and his bending down to wash the feet of refugees,” Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the head of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, wrote in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.
The ceremony evoked Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last supper before he was crucified. Despite the Brussels attacks, the Vatican has said there will be no change in schedule to the Pope’s commitments over Easter.
Last year the Pope carried out the ritual feet washing at a prison in Rome, kissing the feet of 12 inmates – six men and six women. His inclusion of women and non-Christians upset some traditionalists, who pointed out that Vatican rules dictate that the gesture should only involve Catholic men. But in January the Jesuit pontiff changed those rules to allow women and girls to be included.