As politicians in the United States and Europe rekindle the heated debate over how to respond to the surge of people fleeing the Syrian civil war, Pope Francis is sending his own message. This week, the pontiff is celebrating the traditional Christian holiday of Maundy Thursday in a new way: by washing the feet of refugees.
On Thursday, Pope Francis will celebrate Maundy Thursday — sometimes called Holy Thursday — a traditional Christian holiday meant to commemorate Jesus Christ’s “Last Supper” with his disciples. Although the service usually sees the pope washing the feet of 12 inmates at a prison — a reference to Jesus’ 12 disciples, whose feet he washed in the biblical story — the Vatican announced earlier this week that Francis will instead travel to the Center for Asylum Seekers (Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo, or CARA), where he plans to wash the feet of young refugees.
“We can understand the symbolic value intended by Pope Francis’ visit to the CARA in Castelnuovo di Porto and his bending down to wash the feet of refugees,” Archbishop Rino Fisichella said in a statement. “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. We are urged to look forward to Easter with the eyes of those who make of their faith a life lived in service to those whose faces bear signs of suffering and violence.”
The grace-minded vigil contrasts starkly with rhetoric from American politicians and presidential candidates such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who responded to the this week’s horrific terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium by renewing his opposition to allowing Muslim Syrian refugees into the United States.
“We need a president who sets aside political correctness. In the wake of Brussels, we don’t need another lecture from Obama on Islamophobia,” Cruz said on Tuesday. “We need a commander-in-chief who does everything necessary to defeat the enemy, and we need to immediately halt the president’s ill-advised plan to bring in tens of thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees.”
It’s unclear whether the 12 refugees in Francis’ service will be Syrian, or whether those that are will be Catholic, Muslim, or otherwise. But the pontiff has consistently voiced support for those attempting to escape the Syrian civil war, irrespective of their faith: Last September, Francis demanded that every Catholic parish in Europe take in a Syrian refugee family, saying those that don’t should be required to pay property taxes because they are not truly “religious.” He has also repeatedly stood up for immigrants in general by condemning anti-immigrant hatred, surprising migrants with free Christmas gifts, and even visiting the U.S.-Mexico border in February to bless undocumented immigrants.
Francis has also frequently used the ritual of foot washing to model the ideal of a more welcoming, inclusive Catholic Church during his papacy. Although the service has traditionally involved the pope washing the feet of 12 men, Francis made waves in 2013 when he washed the feet of women and Muslim prisoners instead. He took similar steps in 2014 and 2015, and the Vatican announced in January that the ceremony is now officially open to women and girls as well as men.