The washing of the feet during Holy Thursday services in Christian churches is a call for all to be of service to others, religious leaders say.
Holy Thursday kicks off the Easter Tridiuum, the holiest time on the Christian calendar, which includes Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.
"Even though it's three days, it's kind of one large liturgy," explained Monsignor David Darin, pastor at St. Teresa of the Child Jesus Parish in Belleville and a long-standing member of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission.
Holy Thursday celebrates the Last Supper, or the first Mass, where Jesus offers his body and blood. In preparation for the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of his 12 apostles.
It is a symbol of Jesus' call to service, Darin said.
"Basically as Catholics, we say the two sacraments that Jesus instituted on Holy Thursday were both the ministerial priesthood and the Eucharist," Darin explained.
During this Mass, pastors literally wash the feet of parishioners, just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.
"The priests are called to be of service to our people," Darin said.
Pope Francis made headlines last year when he washed the feet of those living at a juvenile detention center.
"It was almost a little scandalous that Francis would go to a juvenile center and wash the feet of the residents there," Darin said. "It was almost like Jesus scandalizing his disciples; they didn't want their feet washed because this was something a slave did and not somebody we looked to."
Normally, in the past the pope has always washed the feet of 12 priests. "To go out and do this aside from Mass, was something new and unexpected -- a hallmark as his ministry as pope," Darin said.
This year, Francis is expected to wash the feet at a rehabilitation center for the disabled.
"It was a very humbling thing -- not only for Jesus, but also for the Apostles," Darin said.
The feet washing ceremony is performed in other Christian denominations, as well.
The Rev. Dale Coleman, of St. George's Episcopal Church in Belleville, echoed the washing as a call to service.
"We are not to see leadership or ministry in the church as power," Coleman said. "We are to see leadership and service in the church as serving one another, and serving the community and serving anyone in need."
He praised Pope Francis' washing at the detention center.
"He is showing the example of the love of Jesus," Coleman said. "That is at the center of life. That's a marvelous thing."
The Most Rev. Edward Braxton, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Belleville, performs the feet washing as the pastor of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville.
In a message at the beginning of the 2013 Pastoral Plan for Parish Renewal, Braxton said "these days remind us that in washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus himself is calling us to be a community of 'Foot Washers' relating to one another in all circumstances with patience and graciousness, acting always with an attitude of service, surrendering ourselves to Christ."
Braxton will wash parishioners feet during this year's Holy Thursday Mass at 7 p.m.
During a Catholic Mass on Holy Thursday, the priest removes some of his outer vestments, just as Jesus removed his outer cloak. Volunteers are called up to the sanctuary, usually after the Gospel, and asked to remove their shoes and socks.
Darin said volunteers are asked in advance. "Some people are sensitive about their feet," he said.
The priests uses a large copper bowl or pitcher full of water, Darin said.
"We pour water over one foot of the participant," he said. "We dry the feet with a clean white towel... We change the towels with each person."
Coleman said a similar ceremony is at St. George's 7 p.m. Maundy Thursday service. "I have my feet washed, as well, and then I wash others," he said.
St. Teresa's Holy Thursday Mass is at 7 p.m.
Darin said he encourages all Catholics to attend Holy Thursday Mass, as well as Good Friday and the Easter Vigil services.
"I think that it reinforces both in the time of Jesus, as well as in our own day, the importance of ministerial service," Darin said. "I think that's Francis' call to get out and serve others and it's a wonderful example of that."
And he said that everyone is called to such service, not just priests, not just Catholics.
"We should all be serving each other."
Contact reporter Maria Hasenstab at email@example.com or 618-239-2460.