Vatican City, 11 July 2015 (VIS) – After celebrating Mass in the chapel of the archbishop's residence, the Pope visited the Santa Cruz-Palmasola penitentiary where he met with various groups of inmates – men, women and young people imprisoned for both petty and serious offences. The men's Pavilion PS4, where the meeting with the Pope took place, is open for daily visits and hosts around 2,800 detainees, whose family members (around 1,500 per day) are able to live with them in a sort of village protected and managed by the inmates themselves through a “General Regency” led by State security staff.
The Pope was received by the director of the penitentiary, the chaplain and Msgr. Jesus Juarez, head of prison pastoral ministry of the Episcopal Conference of Bolivia. After hearing testimonies from some of the detainees, he addressed those present.
!I could not leave Bolivia without seeing you, without sharing that faith and hope which are the fruit of the love revealed on the cross of Christ”, he said. “Thank you for welcoming me; I know that you have prepared yourselves for this moment and that you have been praying for me. I am deeply grateful for this”.
He continued, “You may be asking yourselves: 'Who is this man standing before us?'. I would like to reply to that question with something absolutely certain about my own life. The man standing before you is a man who has experienced forgiveness. A man who was, and is, saved from his many sins. That is who I am. I don’t have much more to give you or to offer you, but I want to share with you what I do have and what I love. It is Jesus Christ, the mercy of the Father.
“Jesus came to show the love which God has for us. For you and for me. It is a love which is powerful and real. It is a love which takes seriously the plight of those he loves. It is a love which heals, forgives, raises up and shows concern. It is a love which draws near and restores dignity. We can lose this dignity in so many ways. But Jesus is stubborn: he gave his very life to restore the identity we had lost.
“Here is something which can help us to understand this. Peter and Paul, disciples of Jesus, were prisoners too. They too lost their freedom. But there was something that sustained them, something that did not let them yield to despair, that experience of darkness and meaninglessness. That something was prayer, both individually and with others. They prayed, and they prayed for one another. These two forms of prayer became a network to maintain life and hope. And that network keeps us from yielding to despair. It encourages us to keep moving forward. It is a network which supports life, your own lives and those of your families.
“When Jesus becomes part of our lives, we can no longer remain imprisoned by our past. Instead, we begin look to the present, and we see it differently, with a different kind of hope. We begin to see ourselves and our lives in a different light. We are no longer stuck in the past, but capable of shedding tears and finding in them the strength to make a new start. If there are times when you experience sadness, depression, negative feelings, I would ask you to look at Christ crucified. Look at his face. He sees us; in his eyes there is a place for us. We can all bring to Christ our wounds, our pain, our sins. In his wounds, there is a place for our own wounds. There they can be soothed, washed clean, changed and healed. He died for us, for me, so that he could stretch out us his hand and lift us up. Talk to the priests who come here, talk to them! Jesus wants to help you get up, always.
“This certainty makes us work hard to preserve our dignity. Being imprisoned, 'shut in', is not the same thing as being 'shut out'. Detention is part of a process of reintegration into society. I know that there are many things here that make it hard: overcrowding, justice delayed, a lack of training opportunities and rehabilitation policies, violence. All these things point to the need for a speedy and efficient cooperation between institutions in order to come up with solutions. And yet, while working for this, we should not think that everything is lost. There are things that we can do even today.
“Here, in this rehabilitation centre, the way you live together depends to some extent on yourselves. Suffering and deprivation can make us selfish of heart and lead to confrontation, but we also have the capacity to make these things an opportunity for genuine fraternity. Help one another. Do not be afraid to help one another. The devil is looking for rivalry, division, gangs. Keep working to make progress.
“I would ask you to take my greetings to your families. Their presence and support are so important! Grandparents, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, couples, children: all of them remind us that life is worth living and that we should keep fighting for a better world. Finally, I offer a word of encouragement to all who work at this centre: to the administrators, the police officials and all the personnel. They carry out a vital public service. They have an important responsibility for facilitating the process of reintegration. It is their responsibility to raise up, not to put down, to restore dignity and not to humiliate; to encourage and not to inflict hardship. This means putting aside a mentality which sees people as 'good' or 'bad', but instead tries to focus on helping others. This will help to create better conditions for everyone. It will give dignity, provide motivation, and make us all better people.
“Before giving each of you my blessing, I would like for us to pray for a few moments in silence. Each of you, in whatever way you can. I ask you, please, to keep praying for me, because I too have my mistakes and I too must do penance. Thank you”.