Just a few hours before Pope Francis would celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a youth detention center in Rome, 11 Jesuit novices arrived at the local Juvenile Hall in Sylmar with their master of novices to wash the feet of 12 incarcerated teenage boys, as 20 other volunteers were preparing to do the same in all of the facility’s male and female units. The March 27 Jesuits’ foot-washing service in the girls’ gym was being held the night before the traditional Holy Thursday ceremony out of a desire to be in solidarity with the Pope, a former master of Jesuit novices in Argentina, who would soon be washing the feet of 12 imprisoned young people between ages 16 and 21 of different nationalities and religious backgrounds at the Casal del Marmo Penitential Institute for Minors (see page 26). Letters written to the pope by the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall detainees participating in the Rite of Washing of the Feet were emailed that night to Pope Francis in time for his March 28 evening service.“I think you are a humble man,” began one letter, among those read individually by detainees standing next to the juvenile hall co-chaplain, Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy, in the middle of a circle of chairs on the basketball court as part of the local ceremony. Foot-washing of two or three detainees at a time by Jesuit Father Tom Lamanna, novice master, and the Jesuit novices was interspersed with letter reading.“When you read this letter, you will have washed the feet of other kids like [us]. I am writing this letter because you give me hope. I know one day with people like you, us kids won’t be given sentences that will keep us in prison for the rest of our lives. I pray for you. Don’t forget us.” In Italy, a sentence of 26 years is considered a life sentence whereas a sentence of 50 years to life is a common phenomenon for California incarcerated youth aged 14-17. Another difference between the two juvenile justice systems is that youth as young as 10 are detained in California; the minimum age of criminal responsibility in Italy is set at 14 years.One of the detainees facing a lengthy sentence broke down in tears after reading his letter, which expressed his fear that he will never return home. As he walked back to his seat, he was supported by spontaneous applause from his fellow inmates, including several members with gang connections.“I don’t know if you have ever been to where I live,” another detainee wrote the pope. “I have grown up in a jungle of gangs and drugs and violence… It is hard to be young and surrounded by darkness. Pray for me that one day I will be free and be able to help other youth like you do.”“Tonight we pray for all victims of violence,” wrote another. “The families of people we have hurt need healing. Our families need healing. We are all in pain. Let us feel Jesus’ healing tonight.”Luis, the oldest detainee at the service at age 18, spoke to The Tidings before being led away to his unit for the night. “At that very moment when my foot was washed, I felt humble,” he said.“Someone else was washing my feet, but at that point, I didn’t feel better than him. I would like to go through this experience again, but with me, maybe, washing somebody else’s feet. I think this was really beautiful. I never felt like this before; I’ve never done anything like this before.“In myself,” he continued, “I feel renewed; I feel resurrected, like I should move on from my bad life and not try to be the kid who came in here.”Reflecting on earlier comments made by Javier Stauring, co-director of the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice, about maintaining hope in light of recently passed legislation (SB9), giving minors sentenced to life without the possibility of parole a chance to get their sentences reviewed and resentenced, and proposed legislation (SB260), establishing a judicial review process to reevaluate cases of youth tried as adults and sentenced to an adult prison for more than 10 years, Luis had this to say:“Hope is what keeps me going every day,” said Luis, who knows he will be picked up “anytime soon” to move to adult prison to finish his sentence. “I feel very blessed that I am going to get out some day. Some kids are never going to get out. I’m going to change.”“I thought it was really moving,” commented Jesuit novice James Antonio, 26, about the foot-washing ceremony. “I think it was a very holy service to be serving these youth and just to have a visible sign of what our intentions are: to really serve those who are on the margins of society, the forgotten. It’s a real privilege for me.”“I thought it went very well,” said his novice master, Father Lamanna. “I was impressed with just how the teenagers were and their prayerfulness. It went above and beyond my expectations.”“By the time we finished this ceremony, I think [the youth] got it,” said Father Kennedy, founder of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative. “They felt that somebody important in the world [the pope] took a step to say that they are important. Having the Jesuit novices here and having them have a special place — normally they don’t go outside at night here — all the different special aspects of this showed them that they are important. I think the idea of having their feet washed worked. I think it was powerful.”In an emailed message sent at 2:52 a.m. on Holy Thursday to Father Kennedy, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said he was “profoundly touched” by the letters sent to the pope by the teenage detainees.“I will surely forward to the Pope Francis the letters of your — and his — young friends,” wrote Father Lombardi. “I don’t know if he can read them today before the afternoon Mass (in this moment he is already celebrating the Chrism Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica), but he will surely read them with profound gratitude, and he will pray for all the young people that are in the Juvenile Hall, and all that are in prisons. I will also keep all of you in my heart and in my prayers as I will be present during the Mass this evening in the Institute of Casal del Marmo.”{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0405/footwash/{/gallery}