Pope Benedict XVI humbly washed the feet of 12 men on Thursday, re-enacting Jesus' washing of his apostles' feet during the Last Supper and saying the act cleansed the "filth" of mankind.
As a choir's hymn filled St. John Lateran Basilica, Benedict poured water from a golden vase over each of the men's feet and scrubbed each one dry in an act of humility and service.
In his homily, Benedict said Jesus washed his disciples' feet to purify them so they could join him at the Last Supper, the meal which the faithful believe Jesus shared with his apostles before he was crucified.
"God comes down and becomes a slave; he washes our feet so we can be at his table," Benedict said. "The bath in which he washes us is his love, ready to confront death. Only love has the purifying force that takes away our filth and elevates us to God."
Holy Thursday marks the start of a series of solemn ceremonies in the Catholic Church in which the faithful relive Jesus' suffering, crucifixion and death and then his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Thursday's service came hours after Benedict presided over another Mass dedicated to priests during which he recalled the sacrifice of a cleric slain in Turkey.
Benedict read a letter written by Rev. Andrea Santoro in which the Italian prelate spoke of his willingness to offer his own body for the sake of preaching Catholicism in largely Muslim Turkey.
Santoro, 60, was shot dead Feb. 5 while he prayed in his parish in the Black Sea city of Trabzon. Witnesses said the killer, a 16-year-old boy, screamed "Allahu Akbar," Arabic for "God is great," before firing two bullets into Santoro's back.
Benedict quoted Santoro as saying in his letter that he had chosen to live in Turkey to be among its people, "lending" his body to Christ to do so.
"One becomes capable of salvation only by offering one's own body," Santoro wrote.
Santoro's slaying occurred at the height of unrest in the Muslim world over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad published in Europe. Senior church officials have called Santoro a martyr.
The Vatican announced earlier this month that money collected during the Holy Thursday Mass would be used to rebuild houses for victims of a February mudslide in the Philippines that buried the town of Guinsaugon and killed more than 1,000 people, reports AP.
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