Pope Benedict to prisoners: I carry you all in my heart before the Lord

2011-12-18 Vatican Radio

“The Church supports and encourages any efforts to guarantee everyone a decent life. Be sure that I am close to each of you, your families, your children, your young, your old and I carry you all in my heart before God”, Pope Benedict XVI told 300 men and women detainees in Rome’s biggest prison Sunday, in a moving pre-Christmas visit.

The Holy Father spent over an hour at the Rebibbia prison, during which he also answered questions from some inmates who spoke of their despair at being kept in overcrowded cells, away from their families, some of them sick with AIDS, and of having repented for their crimes.

"I know that overcrowding and degradation in prison can make detention even more bitter," responded the Pope, to the inmates of the prison, which has 500 more inmates than the 1,240 it was built to hold. He continued :“I have received several letters from prisoners who stress this. It is important that the institutions promote a careful analysis of the prison system today, verifying the structures, resources, personnel, so that prisoners do not discount a "double punishment", and it is important to promote a development of the prison system, which, while in full respect for justice, is increasingly tailored to the needs of the human person, even with the use of the non-custodial sentences or different modes of detention”.

And then Pope Benedict reminded them that they are never alone in their suffering: “I have come to tell you simply that God loves you with infinite love, and you are always the same children of God. The only-begotten Son of God, The Lord Jesus, experienced prison, He was subjected to trial before a court and suffered the most cruel death sentence”.

Following his address, Pope Benedict spent time listening and responding to some prisoners questions. An Italian man Rocco asked if the Holy Father’s gesture would also be recognised by political leaders in its simplicity, so that dignity be restored to all, including detainees. The Pope replied that while his visit is of a personal nature aimed at showing the men and women of Rebibbia his genuine concern for them, it is also a public gesture to draw attention to the problems and difficulties of Italian prisons.

Another African inmate named Omar, visibly moved, instead spoke to Pope Benedict of his gratitude for the visit, of its important for Catholic inmates, of how he misses his family and ended with the words, “Thank you Holy Father we all care a lot for you”, to which Pope Benedict replied, “As I do for all of you“.

Then an Italian man named Federico, representing the inmates from the infirmary sector many of whom are HIV positive asked the Pope to help them make their voices heard, explaining how they are often isolated and speak of them "ferociously". In a rare and personal insight the Pope replied: “You say that people talk cruelly about you, unfortunately it is true, but I would say not only that, there are others who speak well of you and think of you. I think of my little Papal family, I am surrounded by 4 lay sisters, and we often talk about this problem, they have friends in different prisons, we also receive gifts from them and make our own gifts to them, so this is reality is a very positive presence in my family and I think in many others. We must bear with the fact that some people talk fiercely, some even talk fiercely about the Pope and yet we have to move on”.


Below a full Vatican Radio Translation of Pope Benedict XVI’s discourse in Rome’s Rebbiba Prison:


Dear brothers and sisters,

with great joy and emotion I come among you this morning for a well timed visit just a few days before celebrations of the Birth of Our Lord. I extend a warm greeting to all present, especially the Minister of Justice, Paula Severino, and chaplain, whom I thank for his words of welcome addressed to me on your behalf. I greet the Prison director, Dr. Canton Caramel, his co-workers, prison guards and volunteers who devote themselves to the activities of this Institute. And I especially greet the inmates, to whom I express my closeness.

"I was in prison and you came to me" (Matthew 25:36). These are the words of the Last Judgement, as told by the Evangelist Matthew, and these words of the Lord, in which he identifies with the prisoners, express the full meaning of my visit with you today. Wherever there is the hungry, stranger, sick, incarcerated, there is Christ himself who awaits our visit and our help. This is the main reason that makes me happy to be here, to pray, talk and listen. The Church has always counted visiting those in prison among its corporal works of mercy (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2447). And this, to be complete, requires the capacity to fully welcome the prisoner, "making space and time for them in our homes, friendships, laws and cities" (cf. IEC, evangelization and witness of charity, 39 ). In fact, I would like to be able to listen to the personal story of each one of you, but, unfortunately, this is not possible. However, I have come to tell you simply that God loves you with infinite love, and you are always the same children of God. The only-begotten Son of God, The Lord Jesus, experienced prison, He was subjected to trial before a court and suffered the most cruel death sentence.

During my recent visit to Benin, in November last, I signed a post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation where I reiterated the Church's attention to justice in the States, writing: " Independent judiciary and prison systems are urgently needed, therefore, for the restoration of justice and the rehabilitation of offenders. It is time to put a stop to “miscarriages of justice and ill-treatment of prisoners”, and “the widespread non-enforcement of the law ... which represents a violation of human rights,” as well as imprisonment either without trial or else with much-delayed trial. The Church recognizes her prophetic mission towards all those affected by crime and their need for reconciliation, justice and peace.” Prisoners are human persons who, despite their crime, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They need our care "(n. 83).


Dear brothers and sisters, human and divine justice are very different. Of course, men are not able to apply divine justice, but should at least look at it, trying to grasp the deep spirit that animates it, to enlighten human justice, to avoid - as unfortunately often happens - the inmate becoming an outcast. In fact, God is the one who proclaims justice with force, but at the same time, heals all wounds with the balm of mercy.

The parable of the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-16) on day-labourers in the vineyard helps us understand the difference between human and divine justice, because it clearly explains the delicate relationship between justice and mercy. The parable describes a farmer who takes on workers for his vineyard. He does so, however, at different times of day, so that some work all day awhile others just one hour. When the time comes for payment, the master arouses wonder and ignites a debate among the workers. The issue regards the generosity - considered an injustice by those present - of the vineyard owner, who decides to give workers the same wages to both the workers from the morning and those from late afternoon. From a human point of view this decision is an authentic injustice, from God’s point of view, it is an act of kindness, because divine justice gives to each his own, and also includes mercy and forgiveness.

Justice and mercy, justice and charity, the pillars of the social doctrine of the Church, are two different realities only for us men; we carefully distinguish an act of justice from an act of love. Justice for us is "what is due to another", while mercy is what is given out of goodness. And one thing seems to exclude the other. But it is not so for God: in Him justice and charity coincide: there is no just action that is not also an act of mercy and forgiveness and at the same time, there is no act of mercy that is not perfectly just.

How far the logic of God is from our own! And how different is our way of acting from His! The Lord invites us to understand and observe the true spirit of the law, to give it fulfillment in love for those in need. " Love Fulfils the Law," writes St. Paul (Romans 13:10): the more our justice is animated by love for God and neighbour, the more perfect it will be.

Dear friends, the detention system revolves around two main points, both of which are important: on the one hand, protecting society from threats, on the other rehabilitating those who did wrong without trampling on their dignity and without excluding them from social life. Both aspects have their relevance and aim to avoid the creation of an "abyss" between the true reality of prison life and the that thought of by the law, which provides the rehabilitative goal of punishment and the rights and dignity of persons as key elements. Human life belongs to God alone, who has it given us, and is not abandoned to the mercy of anyone else, not even to our own free will! We are called to guard the precious pearl of our life and that of others.

I know that the overcrowding and degradation of prisons may make detention even more bitter: I have received several letters from prisoners who stress this. It is important that the institutions promote a careful analysis of the prison system today, verifying the structures, resources, personnel, so that prisoners do not discount a "double punishment", and it is important to promote a development of the prison system, which, while in full respect for justice, is increasingly tailored to the needs of the human person, even with the use of the non-custodial sentences or different modes of detention.

Dear friends, today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. May the Birth of the Lord, now approaching, rekindles hope and love in your heart. The birth of the Lord Jesus, which we will commemorate in a few days, reminds us of His mission to bring salvation to all men without exception. His salvation is not imposed, but comes to us through acts of love, mercy and forgiveness that we ourselves create. The Child of Bethlehem will be happy when all men will return to God with a renewed heart. We ask in silence and prayer each one of us to be freed from the prison of sin, vainglory, and pride: everyone needs release from this interior prison to be truly free from evil, from anxiety and death. Only that Child lying in the manger is able to give full freedom to all this!

I want to finish by telling you that the Church supports and encourages any efforts to guarantee everyone a decent life. Be sure that I am close to each of you, your families, your children, your young, your old and I carry you all in my heart before God. May the Lord bless you and your future!