CIUDAD JUAREZ — The one who “has experienced hell” can become a prophet in society, Pope Francis told prisoners on the final day of his visit to Mexico. For “there is no place beyond the reach of God’s mercy, no space or person it cannot touch.”
The pope’s meeting with prisoners was one he could not miss and was particularly important to him. Upon his arrival in Ciudad Juarez, Francis visited the Center for Social Adjustment No. 3, where approximately 3,000 inmates are currently serving their sentences. The prison is part of a penal institution redevelopment project launched by the state of Chihuahua, which has achieved an accreditation award for respecting international prison standards.
The inmates’ families were there to greet the pope. When the pope approached a woman standing behind the barrier, she blessed him, making the sign of the cross on his forehead and heart as one usually does with children. Francis embraced her and reciprocated with his own blessing.
He then met the chaplains and staff at the prison, whom he presented with a glass cross. “Thank you for the good that you do here, a good that often goes unnoticed. I have brought you,” he said, “an image of the most vulnerable one of all: Christ on the cross. Yet is it with this fragility that he saves us and gives us hope.”
Seven hundred people were present in the prison chapel to hear his speech. The pope personally greeted about 50 of them.
A female inmate welcomed the pope on behalf of her fellow inmates, saying: “Our faith and inner strength are sorely tested here. By sharing this space we are all equal, just as we are all equal in the eyes of God. Your presence is a reminder to all those who have lost hope in our rehabilitation and to those who have forgotten that there are human beings here. When we are sentenced, what we do is cry. We feel distressed, we despair. And we start asking ourselves questions we do not want to know the answer to: when will I get out? Does my family love me? Have they forgotten about me? We feel exposed, vulnerable and alone.”
The focus of Francis’ speech is mercy in the Jubilee Year, but also a “social reintegration” that begins outside the Church: “The one who has suffered the greatest pain, and we could say ‘has experienced hell,’ can become a prophet in society. Work so that this society, which uses people and discards them, will not go on claiming victims.”
Francis reminded those present that “there is no place beyond the reach of his mercy, no space or person it cannot touch. Celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy with you is recalling the pressing journey that we must undertake in order to break the cycle of violence and crime.”
Francis criticized the current system: “We have already lost many decades thinking and believing that everything will be resolved by isolating, separating, incarcerating and ridding ourselves of problems, believing these policies really solve problems. We have forgotten to focus on what must truly be our concern: people’s lives; their lives, those of their families and those who have suffered because of this cycle of violence.”
This is why prisons are “a symptom of a culture that has stopped supporting life, of a society that has abandoned its children.” Reintegration, Francis said, “begins before, it begins ‘outside,’ in the streets of the city. Reintegration or rehabilitation begins by creating a system which we could call social health, that is, a society which seeks not to cause sickness, polluting relationships in neighborhoods, schools, town squares, the streets, homes and in the whole of the social spectrum. A system of social health that endeavors to promote a culture which acts and seeks to prevent those situations and pathways that end in damaging and impairing the social fabric.”
Yet sometimes it seems “that prisons are intended more to prevent people from committing crimes than to promote the process of rehabilitation that allows us to address the social, psychological and family problems which lead a person to act in a certain way. The problem of security is not resolved only by incarcerating; rather, it calls us to intervene by confronting the structural and cultural causes of insecurity that impact the entire social framework.
“Social reintegration,” the pope explained, “begins by making sure that all of our children go to school and that their families obtain dignified work by creating public spaces for leisure and recreation, and by fostering civic participation, health services and access to basic services.
“We know that we cannot turn back, we know that what is done is done,” Francis concluded. “This is the way I wanted to celebrate with you the Jubilee of Mercy, because it does not exclude the possibility of writing a new story and moving forward. You suffer the pain of a failure, you feel the remorse of your actions and in many cases, with great limitations, you seek to remake your lives in the midst of solitude.
“You have known the power of sorrow and sin and have not forgotten that within your reach is the power of the resurrection,” Francis said, encouraging inmates. “The power of divine mercy makes all things new. Now, this mercy can reach you in the hardest and most difficult of places, but such occasions can also perhaps bring truly positive results. From inside this prison, you must work hard to change the situations which create the most exclusion. Speak with your loved ones, tell them of your experiences, help them to put an end to this cycle of violence and exclusion.”
Francis also urged staff at the prison, directors, prison guards and all who undertake any type of work there, “Never forget that all of you can be signs of the heart of the Father. We need one another to keep on moving forward.”
Before the blessing, he said to inmates: “May this prayer open up your hearts and allow you to forgive society, unable as it was to help you, often driving you to make mistakes.”
The inmates presented the pope with a pastoral staff made out of wood, surmounted by a cross. The shaft, which is 75 inches high, can be divided into four parts. Another group of inmates got a small orchestra together, which they called “Music makes us free,” and put on a little concert for Francis.
A particularly moving moment was the long embrace Pope Francis exchanged with two of the musician-inmates. They knelt down, tears streaming down their faces, and squeezed the pope’s hand as he prayed in silence.