2015-09-27 16:30:00

Pope: Prisons must care for wounded; offer new possibilities

(Vatican Radio)  Pope Francis met prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia on Sunday (27th September) and said society and families must share or take seriously the pain of its children and never view that pain as something normal or to be expected. He told the prisoners that he was there to share their situation and to make it his own and said “confinement was not the same as exclusion.”

Here is a summary report by Sean Lovett

The "Fantasy Island" pornography store and the "Kingdom of God House of Worship". These are the last two things you see before you disappear behind the gates and walls and barbed wire fences of the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility - a long-winded euphemism for what I would call a prison. 

You turn to catch your last glimpse of the Philadelphia skyline, a faraway blur in the smoggy distance, then you are inside. Literally. There are no windows. Only sliding metal doors and the acrid smell of freshly painted concrete walls. Actually the ceilings and floors are made of concrete too, which adds to the claustrophobic sensation of bring inside a bunker - outside of space, outside of time. Why else do we describe serving a prison term as "doing time"?

60 men and 11 women (sitting in the front row and the only ones who smiled when the Pope came in) - and at least that many security guards lining the walls (one for one). All the inmates dressed in the same regulation blue shirt, pants and canvas shoes. No belts. No laces. The smiling PR person in the room (yes, the prison hired a public relations firm to "manage" the Pope's visit to the jail) told me the prisoners were chosen on the basis of their "good behavior". Which makes you wonder what the "bad behavior" was that got them here in the first place. 

But then it really doesn't matter. Because Jesus, said Pope Francis, "doesn't ask us where we have been or what we have done". The Pope used the beautiful image of washing feet (something with which he is very familiar) to make his point that "life means getting our feet dirty from the dust-filled roads of life and history" and that Jesus "washes our feet so we can come back to the table". 

Pope Francis didn't spare his criticism of the prison system either: "confinement is not the same thing as exclusion", he said. In fact, "it is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities". 
Just for the record, those who know (not the PR person) describe the current punitive system as anything but "correctional". 40% of inmates suffer from some form of psychological or mental problem and risk leaving prison (if they ever do) worse off than when they arrived. 

On a less disturbing note: the Pope's chair was made by the prisoners themselves. And he guessed as much. Who knows how many similar chairs he sat in when he regularly visited prisons as Archbishop of Buenos Aires? Pope Francis caressed the chair approvingly, then he turned to the inmates and gave them the thumbs up. When a female prisoner in the front row shyly indicated she'd had a hand in sewing the cushion - he blew her a kiss. 

A caress, a thumbs up, and a kiss. That's how you soothe pain. At least for a moment.

With Pope Francis on his final day in the United States - I'm Seán-Patrick Lovett.


Please find below the English translation of Pope Francis’ remarks to the prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia:


Dear Brothers and Sisters,

                Thank you for receiving me and giving me the opportunity to be here with you and to share this time in your lives.  It is a difficult time, one full of struggles.  I know it is a painful time not only for you, but also for your families and for all of society.  Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected, is a society “condemned” to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.

                I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.  I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of the resurrection.

                I think of the Gospel scene where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.  This was something his disciples found hard to accept.  Even Peter refused, and told him: “You will never wash my feet” (Jn 13:8).

                In those days, it was the custom to wash someone’s feet when they came to your home.  That was how they welcomed people.  The roads were not paved, they were covered with dust, and little stones would get stuck in your sandals.  Everyone walked those roads, which left their feet dusty, bruised or cut from those stones.  That is why we see Jesus washing feet, our feet, the feet of his disciples, then and now.

                Life is a journey, along different roads, different paths, which leave their mark on us.

                We know in faith that Jesus seeks us out.  He wants to heal our wounds, to soothe our feet which hurt from travelling alone, to wash each of us clean of the dust from our journey.  He doesn’t ask us where we have been, he doesn’t question us what about we have done.  Rather, he tells us: “Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me” (Jn 13:8).  Unless I wash your feet, I will not be able to give you the life which the Father always dreamed of, the life for which he created you.  Jesus comes to meet us, so that he can restore our dignity as children of God.  He wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust.  He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realize that we have a mission, and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion.

                Life means “getting our feet dirty” from the dust-filled roads of life and history.  All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed.  All of us are being sought out by the Teacher, who wants to help us resume our journey.  The Lord goes in search of us; to all of us he stretches out a helping hand.

                It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities.  It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain and wounds are also the weariness, pain and wounds of society.  The Lord tells us this clearly with a sign: he washes our feet so we can come back to the table.  The table from which he wishes no one to be excluded.  The table which is spread for all and to which all of us are invited.

                This time in your life can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society.  All of us are part of that effort, all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation.  A rehabilitation which everyone seeks and desires: inmates and their families, correctional authorities, social and educational programs.  A rehabilitation which benefits and elevates the morale of the entire community.

                Jesus invites us to share in his lot, his way of living and acting.  He teaches us to see the world through his eyes.  Eyes which are not scandalized by the dust picked up along the way, but want to cleanse, heal and restore.  He asks us to create new opportunities: for inmates, for their families, for correctional authorities, and for society as a whole.

                I encourage you to have this attitude with one another and with all those who in any way are part of this institution.  May you make possible new opportunities, new journeys, new paths.

                All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from.  May the knowledge of that fact inspire us to live in solidarity, to support one another and seek the best for others.

                Let us look to Jesus, who washes our feet.  He is “the way, and the truth, and the life”.  He comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change.  He helps us to journey along the paths of life and fulfillment.  May the power of his love and his resurrection always be a path leading you to new life.

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