Pope Francis has made a point of visiting prisons and speaking with the people held in them. He still keeps in touch with his friends in a Buenos Aires jail. His concern for prisoners has endeared him to us at Jesuit Social Services. He has also taught us much as we accompany people in the justice system.

Pope Francis’ latest visit was to the Santa Cruz Palmasola Rehabilitation Centre in La Paz, Bolivia. Rehabilitation Centre is a neutral and reassuring way of describing a very harsh place. Built for 800 prisoners it holds 5,000, and more than three quarters of these are still awaiting trial. Prisoners there told the Pope that bribery, drug-dealing and violence are rife.

What has he taught us? Well, first of all, enthusiasm. He loves to visit people in prison. He still corresponds with prisoners in the Buenos Aires jail. When he spoke with at Palmasola he began by saying,

“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. 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.”

Speaking as their priest in the words and images of faith, Pope Francis gave prisoners all that they might have asked of him. He came to them as a human being like them. He insisted on their human dignity when, in a place where it is so regularly violated, they might have doubted it. He urged them to maintain hope and to treat one another with respect for their humanity, but also recognised the immensity of this challenge.

Those who spend time in prisons will have been struck by how accurately the Pope caught the anguish, the hopes and the vulnerability of the prisoners, and how he could own so simply and honestly the humanity he shared with them:

“In the testimonies of our brothers who have spoken, I have seen how pain does not stifle the hope deep within the human heart, and how life goes on, finding new strength even in the midst of difficulties.

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.”

Pope Francis went on to speak simply out of his own faith, identifying with his hearers’ hard struggle to live with respect for their human dignity in an environment where it is not respected:

:Jesus came to show the love which God has for us. For you, for each of 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 in order to restore the identity we had lost, to clothe us with the power of his dignity.”

For us Pope Paul recalled the sources of our commitment, the privilege and the challenge we have when accompanying people in and out of prison and the gift that our weakness can be when with those who feel unloved.

– Andy Hamilton SJ