How Pope Francis knelt in front of 12 teenage prisoners and taught us to be master RCIA catechists

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIA

Am I really willing to help others? Just think of that. Think that this sign is Christ’s caress, because Jesus came just for this, to serve us, to help us. —Pope Francis, Holy Thursday Homily

On Holy Thursday, Pope Francis showed us how to be master catechists. He knelt before 12 inmates of the Casal Del Marmo Juvenile Detention Center, poured water over their feet, washed and dried them, and then kissed them. The feet were black, white, male, female, Christian, and Muslim. Some of them were even tattooed.

As catechists, we have to ask what the pope thinks he was doing and what we think he was doing. And how can we become master catechists like the pope?


The first action of the catechist is to provide “a suitable catechesis” (RCIA 75). What makes a catechesis suitable? The RCIA notes two essential elements:

  1. The catechesis leads to “an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas”
  2. The catechesis leads to “a profound sense of the mystery of salvation”

If you, as a catechist, were standing before those 12 inmates (who ranged in ages from 14 to 21), as well as all of their cellmates, how would you provide “an appropriate acquaintance with dogmas”? And how would you provide “a profound sense of the mystery of salvation”?

But that isn’t really the right question, if we are trying to understand what the pope thinks he was doing and how that will change the way we catechize.

Instead, we have to ask, the next time I’m standing in front of the catechumens in my parish, how will I provide a catechesis that does those two things? The model the pope gave us was powerful because it was adapted to the people he was standing in front of. How could he be a manifestation of the Logos, the living Word, the Good News (that actually sounds good) for the inmates of Casal Del Marmo?

If I wash the feet of the catechumens in my middle-class parish, does that provide “a profound sense of the mystery” on par with the teaching action of Pope Francis? Or will I have to uncover some other way of manifesting the Word that will speak more appropriately and more profoundly to the catechumens in my parish?


As catechists, our job is not exactly to catechize. Well, not us alone, anyway. Our job is to involve the entire parish in the actions of catechesis. The way the parish is parish is the catechesis. This is a huge frustration for most of us. How in the world are we going to get all those parishioners to understand their role?

Let’s look at what master catechist Pope Francis did. If he wanted to catechize those teenage inmates, he could have just gone to the prison on a Tuesday in Ordinary Time and had lunch with them. He chose, instead, to go on Holy Thursday when the media was still following every hiccup of his new papacy. By making that choice, Pope Francis has ignited a world-wide discussion among Catholics about the role of Catholics in society. It is not only the inmates of Casal Del Marmo who were impacted by the pope’s actions. The whole world—and especially Catholics—have become involved in this simple catechetical action.

Again, we have to ask ourselves, what is the take away? How can I, as a catechist, get the whole parish involved in some similar way? Just washing the feet of the catechumens on Holy Thursday will not suffice in most U.S. parishes. What will make people take notice? What are the teachable moments that are coming up in the next week? The next month? Next fall? Next Christmas?


I am a graduate-school-trained liturgist. Some might call me a “purist.” I believe liturgical rules and guidelines are there to help us celebrate liturgy well, and I have low tolerance for folks who disregard the rubrics for the sake of a false “pastoral benefit.” Many liturgical purists are upset that Pope Francis washed the feet of two girls on Holy Thursday because a strict reading of the rubrics in Latin indicates the subjects of the foot-washing are to be “men.”

However, the liturgy is not Jesus, and we should not make a god out of it. There is one purpose for liturgy: to worship God through the sacrificial action of Christ. When the liturgy fails to do that, it must be adapted. When the liturgy can do it more clearly for the people you are standing in front of, it must be adapted. (Who has the authority to make those adaptations is a separate question.)

There are two important things to note about Pope Francis’ adaptation. First, he washed the feet of the girls because it made the worship of God clearer in that context. He did not do it as a political statement or as a commentary on women’s ordination. If next Holy Thursday he washes the feet of 12 priests at the Lateran Basilica, as all his predecessors have done, it will be for the same reason—to make the worship of God clearer in that context.

Second, the pope knows what he is doing. So often, those who set out to adapt the liturgy to make it more pastoral do more harm than good. Nine times out of ten, the best way to celebrate liturgy in a given context is exactly as it is given to us in the ritual books. If we want to become master catechists like the pope, we should strive to celebrate the liturgy as well as possible within the official guidelines of the church.

If something about the way your parish celebrates liturgy really rubs you the wrong way, take on a humble attitude of service, as Pope Francis has done. Seek the guidance of someone trained in liturgy. Perhaps an adaptation is possible. And if not, perhaps you can learn the deeper significance of the rite in question and assist your parish in making that action a true worship of God.


I’m not sure how, but some people seem to have missed the point of Pope Francis washing the feet of the young inmates. One person wrote on his blog:

I am a young, recently ordained priest. Tonight, I planned on preaching about the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood. How can I speak about such things – the self-offering of Christ, the 12 viri selecti – when our Holy Father is witnessing to something different? I feel like going up to the congregation and saying, “I don’t have any idea what the symbolism of the washing of the feet is. Why don’t we just all do what we want.”

Pope Francis taught clearly in his homily on Holy Thursday what the symbolism of the washing of the feet is:

It is the example set by our Lord. It’s important for him to wash their feet, because among us the one who is highest up must be at the service of others. This is a symbol; it is a sign; washing your feet means I am at your service. And we are too, among each other, but we don’t have to wash each others feet each day. So what does this mean? That we have to help each other sometimes.

Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us.

In the end, if that is the lesson you teach, you too will be a master catechist.

What did you think about the foot-washing?

I’d love to know your reaction to Pope Francis washing the feet of the teenagers at the juvenile detention center. What did you take away from it that will make you a better catechist?

See also these related articles:
  1. Questions from Pope Benedict for RCIA Teams
  2. Silence—an unlikely step in moving to a year-round RCIA
  3. Knowing content is not sufficient for RCIA…according to the pope
  4. Episode 11: Essential facts RCIA teams need to teach about the pope
  5. How Pope Francis knelt in front of 12 teenage prisoners and taught us to be master RCIA catechists

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  1. My concern is that people are asking “Why would Pope Francis wash the feet of teenagers in a detention centre?” I saw and instantly thought of Matthew 25:36. As Jesus’ representative why wouldn’t he remind us that we must be taken out of our comfort zone when we serve others? I am from a multicultural parish, we endeavour to always include migrants and refugees in the washing of the feet.

  2. I thought it was the most stunningly simple, completely powerful action of Jesus in our world. He touched us all.

  3. A group of us do prayer services and mini Bible studies at the Juvenile Detention Center in our metro area. We talked about what the pope did, why he did it and it opened up a wonderful interactive discussion on Catholicism, Christianity and service (we are Catholic but many who attend are not, and frequently don’t attend any denomination’s services when not detained) plus a discussion about our culture’s aversion to having our feet washed vs. the culture during Jesus’ lifetime including dust and sandals. We give thanks for our new Pope’s example.

  4. I thought it was the most humble, Christ like example of what “service” means that I have ever seen. How could you read John’s account of Jesus washing the feel of the disciples and not see Christ in our Holy Father. He truly is an example of how we should live. The Holy Spirit knew exactly what he was doing when he inspired the cardinals to elect Francis as Pope!

  5. We need all to be in our knees to serve the other. What a beautiful example of Papa Francisco for all of us Christian and non Christian. We are to service each other, regardless of being male, female, big, small, black, white, blue or yellow. Jesus came for ALL! Talking about Evangelization!

  6. I am struck by the blogger-young priest- who said he was going to preach about “the self-offering of Christ”, but when he saw the Pope’s action he did not know what to do.I do- drop the viri selecti and go with “what I do for you, you all MUST do.” I don’t know the Latin for “‘Nuf said.”

  7. Pope Francis’ action of washing the feet was inclusive, humble and an effective example.
    He exemplified: “Will you let me be your servant” so well.

    Like St Francis said:
    I have done my part. You must do the same.

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