To the detainees of CeReSo 3 in Cuidad Juarez: those who have experienced hell can be prophets for society

Vatican City, 17 February 2016 (VIS) – Yesterday at 10 a.m. local time (6 p.m. in Rome) the Holy Father began the last leg of his apostolic trip in Mexico: Ciudad Juarez, for two centuries the only land passage to the United States. Indeed, Cuidad Juarez is situated on the Rio Grande, facing the Texan city of El Paso. The two form a metropolitan area with two million inhabitants. It is a very developed industrial centre and, according to various statistics, one of the most violent cities in the world, due principally to drug trafficking across the border with the United States. It also has around 950 armed gangs with tens of thousands of members, and is home to hundreds of Mexican gang members deported from the United States. During the last four years of the drugs war, 212,000 inhabitants – or around 18 per cent of the population – abandoned the city. Ciudad Juarez is sadly renowned for the disappearance of thousands of women, typically from poor families, who worked in the maquiladoras (clandestine factories). The theme of the abduction and murder of these women has featured in literature and cinema, and various associations have been established to defend women, including "Nuestras hijas de regreso a casa" ("Bring our daughters back home").

The Holy Father began his day in Ciudad Juarez with a visit to the CeReSo 3 penitentiary, which formed part of a project for the requalification of the penal institutions of the State of Chihuahua, and has been awarded for its observance of international norms in the field. It houses three thousand detainees including a limited number of women. Upon arrival Francis greeted the families of some of the inmates, and proceeded to the chapel where he was awaited by staff and the priests of the penitentiary's pastoral service, to whom he addressed some words of thanks for their work. "You encounter much fragility. Therefore I would like to offer you this fragile image", he said, referring to the crystal crucifix he gave to the Centre to commemorate his visit. "Crystal is fragile, it breaks easily. Christ on the Cross represents the greatest fragility of humanity; however it is this fragility that saves us, that helps us, that enables us to keep going and opens the doors of hope. It is my wish that each one of you, with the blessing of the Virgin and contemplating the fragility of Christ Who died to save us, sowing seeds of hope and resurrection".

He was awaited in the Centre's main courtyard by seven hundred detainees, of whom he greeted around fifty in person. One of them gave a testimony in which he affirmed that the presence of the Holy Father was a call to mercy especially for those who had lost hope in their rehabilitation and for those who had forgotten that there are human beings in prison. Francis then addressed those present, remarking first that he could not have left "without greeting you and celebrating with you the Jubilee of Mercy", adding that mercy "embraces everyone and is found in every corner of the world. 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. We have already lost many decades thinking and believing that everything will be resolved by isolating, separating, incarcerating, and ridding ourselves of problems, believing that 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".

"Divine Mercy reminds us that prisons are an indication of the kind of society we are. In many cases they are a sign of the silence and omissions which have led to a throwaway culture, a symptom of a culture that has stopped supporting life, of a society that has abandoned its children. Mercy reminds us that reintegration does not begin here within these walls; rather it 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 neighbourhoods, schools, town squares, the streets, homes and in the whole of the social spectrum. A system of social health that endeavours to promote a culture which acts and seeks to prevent those situations and pathways that end in damaging and impairing the social fabric".

"At times it may seem 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", he observed. "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. Jesus’ concern for the care of the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless and prisoners sought to express the core of the Father’s mercy. This becomes a moral imperative for the whole of society that wishes to maintain the necessary conditions for a better common life. It is within a society’s capacity to include the poor, infirm and imprisoned, that we see its ability to heal their wounds and make them builders of a peaceful coexistence. Social reintegration 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, to name just a few possible measures. The whole rehabilitation process starts here".

"Celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy with you means learning not to be prisoners of the past, of yesterday. It means learning to open the door to the future, to tomorrow; it means believing that things can change. Celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy with you means inviting you to lift up your heads and to work in order to gain this space of longed-for freedom. Celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy with you means repeating this phrase that we heard a little while ago, so well expressed and with such force: 'When they gave me my sentence ,someone said to me: do not ask the reason why you are here, but the purpose. And this 'purpose' keeps us going ahead; it enables us to overcome the barrier of the social deception that would have us believe that security and order are obtained only through imprisonment".

"We know that we cannot turn back, we know that what is done, is done. 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, the power of divine mercy which 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. 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".

"As I say these things, I recall Jesus' words: 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone'. I should leave now … in saying these things to you, I do not do so as if I were in the pulpit, wagging my finger; I do so on the basis of the experience of my own wounds, errors and sins that the Lord has wished to forgive and re-educate. I do so on the basis of the knowledge that, without His grace and my vigilance, I could easily repeat them. Brothers, I always ask myself, as I enter a prison, 'Why them and not me?'. And it is a mystery of divine mercy. But we all celebrating this divine mercy today, looking ahead with hope".

Finally, the Pope addressed all the staff and those who undertake any type of work that brings them into contact with inmates, urging them to remember their potential to be "signs of the heart of the Father", and adding, "We need one another; as our sister said to us, recalling the Letter to the Hebrews: let us feel we are imprisoned alongside them".

Before giving his blessing, he invited those present to pray a moment in silence: "Each one knows what he wants to say to the Lord; each person knows what he wants to be forgiven for. But I ask you, in this silent prayer, let us open our hearts to be able to forgive the society that has not been able to help us and that has often led us to err. From the depths of our hearts, may each one of us ask God to help us believe in his mercy".