I don't know if you have ever been to where I live. I have grown up in a jungle of gangs and drugs and violence. I have seen people killed. I have been hurt. We have been victims of violence. It is hard to be young and surrounded by darkness.
Pray for me that one day I will be free and be able to help other youth like you do.”
How many Young Offenders have written from prison to ask a Pope for prayers, especially those who have life sentences which will, perhaps through their own fault, deny them the normal joys and sorrows of growing up? Yet this is exactly what a group of such youngsters in America did on hearing that, on Maundy Thursday, instead of celebrating the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in St Peter’s, Pope Francis would go to an institution like theirs, celebrate Mass with young criminals just like them, wash and kiss their feet and, in that simple gesture, show them that a new and entirely different lifestyle could be theirs. Vatican Radio collected some of the letters:
“Dear Pope Francis,
I have never been to Rome. I do not know if it is near Los Angeles because all my youth I have only known my neighbourhood. I hope one day I will be given a second chance and receive a blessing from you and maybe even have my feet washed on Holy Thursday.”
Dear Pope Francis,
I know you have a good family. I am writing this letter to you because I know that my family is suffering because of me. I know I have done some bad things but I am not a bad kid and when last year in our big state we got a new law called SB9 this made me [and my] family happy because this is a beautiful message that we kids deserve a second chance.”
We all make mistakes and, for some of the inmates of the Young Offenders institution, that is what they did: they saw no good examples as they grew up and, in following ’the crowd’, ended up in court, charged with drug abuse, peddling and violent crime. Some people will argue that there are those who are ‘born evil’, but, looking at two newborn babies, there seems to be little indication that one will become a great saint and the other a great sinner. What makes the difference?
On Holy Thursday, Pope Francis showed his ability to meet people where they are rather than where he would like them to be. Knowing that some of the youth in the Casal del Marmo had no interest in religious matters, he broke with tradition and, instead of giving them a holy picture to mark his visit, gave an Easter egg. That gesture probably meant an enormous amount: the boys and girls whom he visited would have tossed a picture onto the top of a cupboard or a shelf or into a bin: they will cherish the memory of the Pope’s Easter egg, for the rest of their lives. It will always be a symbol of hope, a new life and of dreams for a future with happiness instead of sadness, frustration and despair.
The Pope did not preach a long homily packed with theology and long words. Instead he used very simple words, useful as his listeners probably included a good number who were illiterate, words which recalled the advice of St Francis of Assisi to “preach the Gospel at all times and occasionally use words”. Actions speak louder than words.
"Washing feet means: 'I am at your service'. And with us too, don’t we have to wash each other’s feet day after day? But what does this mean? That all of us must help one another. Sometimes I am angry with someone or other … but… let it go, let it go, and if he or she asks you a favour, do it."
There can have been few hearts untouched when the Holy Father finished his homily by saying:
"Now we will perform this ceremony of washing feet, and let us think, let each one of us think: 'Am I really willing, willing to serve, to help others?'. Let us think about this, just this. And let us think that this sign is a caress of Jesus, which Jesus gives, because this is the real reason why Jesus came: to serve, to help us."
Thus he washed the sometimes tattooed feet of ten young men and two women, one of them a Muslim. A couple of years ago, when one of my Community worked as a chaplain in Wandsworth Prison, she unthinkingly and accidentally disobeyed regulations one day insofar as she rested her hand on the shoulder of one inmate as she tried to negotiate her way through an untidy cell. To the amazement of this Sister and of the other prisoners, the man burst into tears. “This is the first time that anybody has ever touched me in love”, he wept. Perhaps one or more of the Young Offenders was in a similar situation when the Pope not only washed and dried, but also kissed and outstretched foot?
Yet for all that, one Catholic broadcasting network tied itself in knots as it tried to explain “what Pope Francis was really saying”. Several bloggers castigated him because “the Pope did not preach Catholic doctrine”. Oh really? I thought that Jesus himself said that he “came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many”. Perhaps Jesus was not a Catholic? Well, surprisingly, Jesus was not a Catholic: he lived and died as a Jew, but he did set a precedent for those who followed after him.
Amazingly, having heard of the Pope’s visit to the Casal del Marmo on Maundy Thursday, one young priest wrote, “How can I speak about such things - the self-offering of Christ - when our Holy Father is witnessing to something different? I feel like going up to the congregation and saying, 'I don't have any idea what the symbolism of the washing of the feet is. Why don't we just all do what we want?'" Another complained that it is sufficient that “St John Bosco was allowed to take children on a daytrip of Youth Offenders and to have them back, under lock and key by a certain time. Therefore, there was no need for Pope Francis [to visit a] prison.”
I am reminded of the teenage boy Alessandro Serenelli, who murdered St Maria Goretti on 6 July 1902 and was subsequently sentenced to 30 years of hard labour. On his release, Serenelli joined a Capuchin Friary as a laybrother and spent the next 24 years working in the garden and doing penance. He was present at Maria’s canonisation. When he died, aged 80, on 6 May 1970, who is not to say that Jesus – and Maria Goretti – welcomed him with open arms?
Likewise, there is every possibility that the visit of a Pope to a juvenile detention facility, for some of its inmates, changed a life sentence into a sentence for new life and hope for themselves and the rest of society.