Updated: 03/29/2013 00:23 | By Agence France-Presse

Pope prepares for ritual washing of feet at Rome prison

Pope Francis prepared Thursday to wash the feet of 12 young offenders including a Muslim girl at a Rome prison in an unusual take on a traditional Easter ritual by Latin America's first pontiff, who has called for reaching out to the needy.

Pope prepares for ritual washing of feet at Rome prison

Pope prepares for ritual washing of feet at Rome prison

Francis will celebrate his first Holy Thursday mass as pope in the Casal del Marmo youth prison on the outskirts of Rome rather than a traditional basilica in the city centre, a move seen as another sign of his less formal style of Latin America's first pontiff.

Local prison ombudsman Angiolo Marroni said that out of the 12 young inmates -- a number chosen to commemorate Jesus Christ's 12 apostles -- there would also be two girls, one Italian Catholic and one of Serbian Muslim origin.

The washing of the feet is a gesture of humility based on the belief that Jesus washed the feet of his apostles on the evening of their final meal together before his death, the Last Supper.

Local chaplain Gaetano Greco told Vatican radio he hoped the ritual, which begins at 1630 GMT, would be "a positive sign in their lives", adding: "There is no better way to show his service for the smallest, for the least fortunate."

Catholic traditionalists are likely to be riled by the inclusion of women in the ceremony because of the belief that all of Jesus' disciples were male.

Earlier on Thursday, the 76-year-old Argentinian pontiff told Catholic priests at a mass in St Peter's Basilica to stop their "soul-searching" and "introspection".

"We need to go out... to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters," he said.

He said the holy oil used to ordain priests was meant "for the edges" of society -- "for the poor, prisoners and the sick, for those who are in sorrow and alone".

Francis has called for the Roman Catholic Church, which has been shaken by multiple scandals in recent years, to be more open and socially active as he begins his pontificate.

His first fortnight as pontiff has been marked by an unusual change of image at the Vatican, but he has yet to tackle some of the big issues facing the Church including reform of the Vatican bureaucracy and bank.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was known in Argentina for his strong social advocacy during his homeland's devastating economic crisis in recent years, his own humble lifestyle and his outreach in poor neighbourhoods.

Holy Thursday is the first of four days of intense spirituality culminating in Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the Christian calendar marking Jesus Christ's resurrection.

On Friday, Francis will recite the Passion of Christ -- the story of the last hours of Jesus' life -- in St Peter's Basilica, before presiding over the Via Crucis -- Way of the Cross -- ceremony by the Colosseum, where thousands of Christians are believed to have been martyred in Roman times.

While a frail Benedict, now 85, presided over last year's celebrations from under a canopy next to the Colosseum, Francis is expected to take part in the procession and even carry the wooden cross on his shoulder for part of the way.

On Saturday, the pontiff will take part in an evening Easter vigil in St Peter's Basilica. The Vatican has not yet said whether Francis will follow the tradition of baptising eight adult converts to the Catholic Church during the service.

On Sunday the Vatican's first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years will celebrate Easter mass in front of tens of thousands of pilgrims in St Peter's Square and then pronounce the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" blessing to Rome and the world.

At his first general audience on Wednesday, Francis called on the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to reach out to "lost sheep" over the coming days.

"Holy Week challenges us to step outside ourselves so as to attend to the needs of others: those who long for a sympathetic ear, those in need of comfort or help," Francis said.

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