VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis practiced the humility and service he has preached during the re-enactment of the Last Supper on Thursday, kneeling and washing the feet of 12 detainees at a juvenile penitentiary in Rome.

Francis entered the gated facility at 5:30 p.m., driving past hundreds of faithful who waited roadside. Unlike previous popes, who washed the feet of priests inside majestic Roman basilicas, Francis celebrated Mass and broke bread with 49 teenagers serving time for drug pushing and collusion with organized crime.

"This is a symbol that means I am at your service," said the pope during his homily at the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention center. "It doesn't mean we have to wash each other's feet every day -- it means we have to help each other. Sometimes one gets upset with this or that person. Let it go, and if they ask you for a favor, just do it."

Twelve inmates served in the roles of apostles to commemorate the Last Supper when, according to the Gospels, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Among the detainees were Italians and undocumented immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe, including two girls and two Muslims.

The pope washed, dried and kissed their feet, two at a time, kneeling six times to accomplish the liturgical feat.

"The pope has always done such things among the poor, immigrants and in poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires," said Andrea Tornielli, Vatican expert and author of "Francis, Pope of a New World."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"I see continuity between the pope and his past," Tornielli said. "Even in his new diocese of Rome, he has been able to show who he is."

After Mass, Francis received a tau, the wooden T-shape cross that was so dear to St. Francis of Assisi and is a symbol of redemption. Francis has repeatedly explained how on March 13, the day of his election, he thought of St. Francis for his love of poverty and peace. The detainees made the tau and also a kneeling stool for the pontiff, who in exchange brought Easter eggs and sweets.

"I'd just like to know why you -- the pope -- came here," asked one detainee.

@Newsday

"It's a feeling that came from my heart, something I felt," answered the pontiff. "And I asked myself, where are those who could most help me be humble and be a servant, the way a bishop should be."

It wasn't the first time that a leader of the Catholic Church visited Casal del Marmo, the juvenile detention center of Rome. Pope John Paul II came in 1980, and Pope Benedict XVI paid a visit in 2007.

Earlier Thursday, Francis celebrated the Chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. During the Mass, in which holy oils for Catholic rites are blessed, Francis invited the high-ranking prelates to put their skin and heart on the line, renewing their pastoral calling against what he called the crisis of priestly identity.

"This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, become sad priests, lose heart," said the pope. "I ask you this, be shepherds living with the smell of your sheep, in the midst of your flock."