By Philip Pullella
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) -Pope Francis, appearing fully recovered from a bout of bronchitis, on Thursday began an intense four days leading to Easter urging priests to avoid fomenting division in the Church and washing the feet of inmates in a juvenile prison.
On Holy Thursday, Francis, along with dozens of cardinals and bishops and about 1,800 priests, gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica to renew the vows they took on their ordination.
Later he travelled to the jail of Casal del Marmo on Rome’s outskirts, where he washed and kissed the feet of 12 young inmates in a gesture commemorating Jesus’ humility towards his apostles on the night before his death.
It was the place where, shortly after his election in 2013, Francis began holding the traditional event at jails, homes for the elderly and with the homeless instead of for priests in Rome’s cathedrals as his predecessors had done.
He is also the first pope to include women and non-Catholics at the foot-washing service. One inmate at Thursday’s service was a Muslim from Senegal. Two were women.
“Any of us can slip up,” he told the inmates in a brief improvised homily.
Francis, 86, spent four days in hospital last week for treatment for bronchitis after complaining of breathing difficulties. He recovered quickly after antibiotics.
“Many times we priests are rude,” Francis said in the homily of the morning Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on the day the Roman Catholic Church commemorates the birth of the priesthood.
He said people seeking spiritual peace and tranquillity in their lives would continue to keep their distance from the Church and view it with suspicion if they see it bogged down in internal disunity, finger-pointing and being coldly judgmental.
He said priests must seek harmony if they wanted to win back lapsed faithful.
Apart from an occasional cough during the nearly two-hour-long Mass, Francis read his homily in a clear, strong voice for 20 minutes. He frequently went off script as he called on priests to stick to their calling as peacemakers and ministers of mercy.
He urged them not to live “double lives” or turn into Church bureaucrats seeking promotions with perks and privileges, and not yearn for a past when the Church was more self-centred.
“Let’s think of the gentleness of priests. If people see even us as people who are dissatisfied and discontented old bachelors who criticise and point fingers, where else will they find harmony?” Francis asked.
“How many people fail to approach us, or keep at a distance, because in the Church they feel unwelcomed and unloved, regarded with suspicion and judged?”
The pope is due to preside at two Good Friday services on the day Christians commemorate the crucifixion, including a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) service at Rome’s Colosseum.
He presides at an Easter vigil Mass on Saturday night and on Easter Sunday delivers his twice-annual “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) blessing and message in St. Peter’s Square.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)