Breaking a centuries-old tradition, Pope Francis washed the feet of a dozen inmates at a juvenile detention center — a Holy Thursday ritual that he celebrated for years as archbishop and is continuing now that he is pope.

The Mass was held in the Casal del Marmo facility in Rome, where 46 young men and women are currently detained. Many of them are Gypsies or North African migrants, and the Vatican said the 12 selected for the rite weren't necessarily Catholic.

Because the inmates are minors — they are aged 16 to 21 and come from broken families — the Vatican and Italian Justice Ministry limited media access inside. But Vatican Radio reported that Francis told the detainees that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples in a gesture of service. He said: "If the Lord has washed his disciples' feet, you should do the same."

The washing of the feet is considered a Holy ritual, as part of the 'Holy Mass of the Lord's Supper,' meant to symbolize Christ's washing of his disciples' feet during the last supper. Past popes, such as Benedict XVI, had celebrated the Holy Thursday by washing the feet of twelve priests in one of Rome's many basilicas.  

But no one had ever washed the feet of juveniles as pope. As Cardinal, Pope Francis celebrated the mass by traditionally washing the feet of people in prisons, hospitals, or hospices.

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The juvenile detention center 'Casal del Marmo' is led by Prison Chaplain Father Gaetano Greco, who told the Catholic News Agency that the holy father's visit "will make them see that their lives are not bound by a mistake, that forgiveness exists and that they can begin to build their lives again.”

The move is in line with the humble Pope Francis, who has decided not to wear the customary gold crucifix, gold Shepherds Ring and chosen to reside in a guest house instead of the grand papal apartment.  

The Argentine-born pope has made it clear in his homilies and addresses that his job is most important for the world's lowliest and that he wants a "poor church for the poor."

Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II visited the same detention center in 2007 and performed Mass there.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press. 

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