Pope Francis has overturned a centuries-old tradition that banned women from a foot-washing service during Lent, upsetting conservatives and delighting women's rights activists. Until now, only men or boys were formally allowed to take part in the service, in which a priest washes and kisses the feet of 12 people to commemorate Jesus' gesture of humility towards his apostles on the night before he died.

But in a letter to the Vatican department that regulates rites of worship, Francis said the group should be made up of "all members of the people of God", including women. The ritual takes place in Catholic parishes around the world four days before Easter. While some parishes in the 1.2 billion member Church had already included women and girls, most have stuck to the written rules, particularly in developing countries.

Since his election in 2013, the Pope has included women when he has presided at the foot-washing services, continuing a practice he started when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. He has held them in a home for the elderly and even included Muslims when he held them in Italian jails, outraging traditionalists. The Holy Thursday rite goes back to at least the seventh century.

The pope has said he wants to put women in more positions of power in the Vatican and the Church worldwide but has ruled out women priests, saying "the door is closed" on the issue. The Church teaches that women cannot be priests because Jesus willingly chose only men as his apostles. Advocates of a female priesthood say he was only adhering to the traditions of his times.