This past Thursday—known as Holy Thursday in the Christian tradition—Pope Francis’s day started out as it normally would. He said the chrism mass at 9:30 a.m. in the Vatican Basilica, where his message urged priests to “go out” into the world and minister among the poor.
But then the Argentine pontiff did something decidedly unpopelike. Francis hopped in a black sedan, traveled to the outskirts of Rome, and visited the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention facility. And there, before saying the mass of the Lord’s supper, the new pope bent down before 12 prisoners—and washed their feet.
These were not just any feet; the young people at Casa del Marmo have walked some winding roads. Most prisoners are immigrants from North Africa or Roma who’ve lived a tough life. Ten boys were in the group, but two were girls, including a young Muslim woman.
When one young man rolled up his jeans, he revealed an extensive set of tattoos, including one that looked like a pair of gambling dice. The Pope washed it, nonetheless.
In a world filled with media stunts and made-for-Twitter PR moments, it’s easy to dismiss this event. But to do so would be to lose sight of how remarkable the pope’s Thursday visit was.
The leader of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide and head of state of the Vatican knelt down before 12 juvenile offenders locked up for their crimes. He held their unwashed toes and poured water on them from a silver chalice. He patted them dry with a simple towel and then kissed them, black and white, male and female (a fact that’s upsetting many Vatican traditionalists, who think women should be forbidden from receiving such service from a pope). Finally, Francis thanked the young people for allowing him to serve them, remarking, “I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty. As a priest and bishop, I must be at your service.”
I can’t think of a greater distinction in station and perspective than a 76-year old pontiff with 1.2 billion people behind him and a teenage Muslim girl locked up for petty crimes. Still, he washed her feet. Call me crazy, but if Francis can do this, I have to imagine that we Americans are capable of some radical acts as well.
Evangelical? This is going to seem nuts—but perhaps, with Francis in mind, you take a gay neighbor or co-worker out for coffee. Not in some grand gesture or anthropological experiment, just … a cup of coffee. Maybe ask a few questions about their life, their dreams, their family. You don’t have to put aside your beliefs, and your religious liberty is not at stake over a cup of joe. And isn’t buying coffee for a gay guy easier than washing a prisoner’s feet?
Gay? Perhaps, in the spirit of Francis, you reach out to the evangelical Christian you work with or battle with online. The one whose perspective on marriage just inflames you, whose theology seems absurd. Maybe buy him lunch the next time you’re in the same city; keep it off the record. After lunch, you can believe all the same things you believed when you walked in. Call me crazy, but if a pope can kiss the tattoos on a prisoner’s toes, can’t an LGBT man or woman buy a sandwich for a conservative Christian?
Democrat? Drop by the office of the guy with the Romney bumper sticker, the one who prompts eye rolls every time you see him. See if he wants to grab a bite to eat one of these days and put it on the calendar. What’s the worst that can happen? Surely it’s safer than leaving the security of the Vatican and spending hours in a prison.
Republican? Find that lady on Twitter, the liberal blogger that drives you mad. The next time you’re in the same city, buy her lunch. Turn off the smartphone and don’t tweet a word of it. Just ... talk. And listen. Isn’t that easier than the head of 1.2 billion Catholics washing a Muslim’s feet?
These humble moments aren’t likely to bring sudden change on the critical issues of the day; the clouds will not break open, a choir of angels won’t start singing “Kumbaya,” and Twitter will still trend with disputes, every single day. In the same way, Pope Francis’s foot washing is unlikely to bridge immediate divides or portend major changes in the Catholic Church. I don’t know if women will be able to become priests, or priests will be able to marry, or rules on contraception and divorce will loosen up. Based on the signs, on these issues, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
But if Francis can do something else—if he can help create a culture of “foot washers,” folks who aren’t afraid to spend a few humble moments serving those who don’t look, act, or think like themselves—he will leave a legacy perhaps greater than any institutional change. He’ll help us remember who we are, our common dignity, and perhaps knit us a little more closely together. Because Francis, modeling himself on Jesus, is trying to show us that it’s not always the grand gestures that have the biggest impact, the great displays of piety and purity and grace. On this Easter weekend, sometimes you just have to find the person who is least like you—and wash their feet.