When Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 young men and women at a juvenile detention facility on Holy Thursday, he was expanding on a tradition that Pittsburgh's Catholic bishops have practiced for a quarter century.
On Thursday afternoon, Bishop David Zubik was once again at the Allegheny County jail, kneeling before a dozen inmates. He washed, dried and kissed their feet in a ritual that Jesus initiated shortly before his arrest.
"That's part of what happened on Holy Thursday. Jesus became a prisoner and knew the pain people have in their lives. They need someone to bring hope," he said.
Bishop Zubik washes feet at Allegheny County Jail Mass
Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik celebrates a Maundy Thursday Mass at the Allegheny County Jail. (Video by Andrew Rush; 3/28/2013)
Bishop Zubik has washed the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday for each of his six years as bishop, except one year when he was at the memorial service for three slain police officers. He alternates years with male and female inmates, since jail rules forbid them to meet together.
He did the same as bishop of Green Bay, Wis., and before that as auxiliary bishop in Pittsburgh on years when then-Bishop Donald Wuerl washed feet at a nursing home or other institution. Bishop Wuerl first took the foot-washing ritual from the cathedral to the jail in 1989.
About 70 Catholic inmates and many prison staffers packed the cinder block chapel.
When inmates see the bishop do this, "It means 'I matter,' " said the Rev. Malcolm McDonald, the Catholic chaplain.
"They won't know Jesus cares until they see those who represent Jesus caring for them," he said.
In Rome, Pope Francis made headlines by washing feet at Casal del Marmo, the juvenile lockup, instead of at St. John Lateran Cathedral. He said he wanted to wash the feet of non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Two Muslims were among those chosen for the ritual.
Holy Thursday is the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted Communion. He also commissioned his apostles -- the Catholic Church teaches that he founded the priesthood. Through the menial task of washing their feet, he taught them to humbly serve others.
Before Mass, Bishop Zubik moved among rows of seated inmates, introducing himself, asking their names and chatting. Before he vested he stood to explain the ritual.
"Hey guys, how are you?" he began.
He didn't want to startle anyone when he kissed their foot.
"What that act symbolizes is how sacred each one of you is, how special every one of you is in God's eyes. Don't let anyone tell you differently," he said.
The 12 inmates removed their right sock and shoe. With the assistance of a deacon and two seminarians he made his way down the row on his knees, pouring water over their feet from a pitcher into a pink plastic tub.
After Mass there was a cupcake and soda reception. Inmates lined up to meet the bishop, and he jotted down prayer requests.
Meredith Seddon, a father of four from the South Side who said he had spent most of his life in and out of prison for "assault and all kinds of things," was among those to have his feet washed.
He was raised in a lapsed Catholic family. Not until Father McDonald began ministering to him in jail several years ago did he give his life to Jesus and receive baptism. When the bishop washed his feet, he felt an overwhelming sense of joy "and I started to tear up a little," he said.
Father McDonald and the jail's Deacon Thomas O'Neil "never gave up believing in me or pushing me in the right direction," he said. "I want to go home and get my children involved in the church."
Nicholas Schubert, a Kennedy resident in jail on gun charges, said the bishop "really cares about us. He's a real person."
The bishop looks up to Pope Francis, who set a global example by going to a jail for the same Holy Week ritual.
"The man is batting a thousand," he said.
Priests from all over the diocese are telling him that Catholics estranged from the church for many years are returning because they are inspired by the new pope. In one case, he said, a dying woman who had left the church 50 years earlier and refused all efforts at reconciliation, called for a priest and said she wanted to return.
"He is obviously reflecting the spirit of Jesus Christ," Bishop Zubik said.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published March 29, 2013 4:00 AM