ROME Two young women were among 12 people whose feet Pope Francis washed and kissed at a traditional ceremony in a Rome youth prison on Holy Thursday, the first time a pontiff has included females in the rite.
The pope travelled to the Casal del Marmo prison on Rome's outskirts for the traditional Mass, which commemorates Jesus's gesture of humility towards his apostles the night before he died.
The ceremony has been traditionally limited to men because all of Jesus' apostles were male. The Vatican spokesman said two of the 12 whose feet were washed were Muslim inmates.
While the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio included women in the rite when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, it was the first time women had taken part in a papal Holy Thursday ceremony.
Taking the ceremony to a youth prison was also a papal first and Francis, who was elected only two weeks ago, said he wanted to be closer to those who were suffering.
All popes in living memory have held the service either in St. Peter's or the Basilica of St. John in Lateran, which is the pope's cathedral church in his capacity as bishop of Rome.
In a brief, unscripted homily, the pope told the young inmates that everyone, including him, had to be in the service of others.
"It is the example of the Lord. He was the most important but he washed the feet of others. The most important must be at the service of others," he said.
At a Mass in the Vatican on Thursday morning, Francis urged Catholic priests to devote themselves to helping the poor and suffering instead of worrying about careers as Church "managers".
His homily at his first Holy Thursday service as Roman Catholic leader was the latest sign since his surprise election two weeks ago of his determination that the 1.2 billion-member Church should be closer to the poor.
"We need to go out, then, in order to experience our own anointing (as priests) ... to the outskirts where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters," he said during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica.
The 76-year-old pope has inherited a Vatican rocked by a scandal in which documents leaked to the media spoke of alleged corruption in its administration and depicted prelates as fighting among themselves to advance their careers.
At the Mass, the start of four days of hectic activities leading up to Easter this Sunday, Francis said priests should not get bogged down in "introspection" but step outside of themselves and concentrate on those who need their help.
"Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager ... doesn't put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks," he said.
In the next few weeks, Francis is expected to start making changes in the Curia, the central bureaucracy that was at the heart of the so-called "Vatileaks" scandal.
Speaking to about 1,600 priests from Rome who attended the St Peter's Mass, he said those who did not live in humility close to the people risked becoming "collectors of antiques or novelties - instead of being shepherds living with 'the smell of the sheep'"
The pope took the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, who is associated with austerity and helping the poor. The new pontiff has already set a clear tone for a humbler papacy and Church.
The four days leading up to Easter are the most hectic in the Church's liturgical calendar.
On Friday Francis will preside at two Good Friday services including the traditional "Via Crucis" (Way of the Cross) procession around the ancient Colosseum in Rome.
He celebrates an Easter eve service on Saturday night and on Easter Sunday, the most important day in the Church's liturgical calendar, he will deliver his first "Urbi et Orbi" (to the city and the world) message to a large crowd in St. Peter's Square.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella; editing by Barry Moody and Rosalind Russell)