To conclude the year of mercy Pope Francis will celebrate two special Masses: one for prisoners and the other for the homeless. Just as the year of mercy took us into the Pope’s vision of the church and the world, so these two Masses show what is dearest to him.
Prisoners turn up everywhere in the New Testament. John the Baptist and Jesus were imprisoned before being killed. Peter and Paul were also in and out of gaol. When Jesus sums up what it means to be his follower in Matthew’s Gospel, he gives pride of place to visiting prisoners.
Prisoners and homeless people were the sort of people that Jesus liked to be with. They were among the most neglected, feared and despised people, just as they are in our society. When they appear in the media, they usually feature as a problem, an outrage or a threat. For Jesus they were always people. More than that, they were the people who most needed and were most open to God’s compassion. So they belong naturally in the hearts of Jesus’ followers.
Of course in Christian faith prisoners and homeless people also image our inner reality. We are the prisoners of sin whom Jesus ransomed by his life and death. We are the homeless wanderers for whom God has prepared a lasting city. For Pope Francis we are the people on whom God has had compassion, prisoners who have been set free, homeless who have found a home. We are aware of our own callousness and betrayals. We are also aware of how disconnected and alienated we can be. And yet God loves and calls us. That is why the Pope is at home with prisoners and the homeless.
Prisoners and homeless people are the thermometer that shows us the health of our society. Prisons are sometimes necessary to protect society. But they are also places where we put hoods over people’s heads and load them our own fears and terrors, where we warehouse the mentally ill, where we spend masses of public money to ensure that people will reoffend, where we lose compassion and delight in punishment. The poverty, lack of education and work, broken relationships, mental and physical addictions for which we do not make resources available to remedy fill the prisons we build.
In many of our programs at Jesuit Social Services we accompany vulnerable people who have been in the justice system. We support their efforts to make connections and to contribute to society. Their company is our privilege.