By Miguel Sifuentes
In early November, Pope Francis appealed to world governments to mark the end of the Year of Mercy by extending clemency to deserving inmates, according to the National Catholic Reporter.
“Every time I visit a prison, I ask myself: ‘Why them and not me?’ We can all make mistakes, all of us. And in one way or another, we have,” he said, departing from his prepared text, humanizing both himself and prisoners with his typical humility.
He called for renewed efforts to ensure justice systems not only punish crimes, but also work to give prisoners hope for the future. These comments followed his homily after the Pope’s celebration of a jubilee Mass for prisoners during his Sunday Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square.
Civil authorities must work to improve living conditions for those serving time “so that the human dignity of prisoners may be fully respected,” he said.
The Pope’s appeal for clemency came for the imprisoned “who are considered eligible to benefit from (it),” he said.
“Hope is a gift of God. We must ask for it,” he told the crowd of approximately 1,000 current and former prisoners from 12 countries, as well as priests and those who work in prison ministry.
Detainees from several prisons in Italy and Spain were given special permission to attend the Mass as altar servers and as part of the choir along with volunteers from the Dozza prison in Bologna.
“(Hope) is placed deep within each human heart in order to shed light on this life, so often troubled and clouded by so many situations that bring sadness and pain.”
Hope is especially present “whenever someone makes a mistake,” but feels the awakening of repentance and forgiveness through God’s mercy, which is greater, he added.
“Paying for the wrong we have done is one thing, but another thing entirely is the ‘breath’ of hope, which cannot be stifled by anyone or anything. … Hope must not falter,” he said.
While the past cannot be undone, learning from one’s mistakes “can open a new chapter of your lives.”
Prisoners are not the only ones imprisoned, the Pope warned. The physically free can hold “a certain hypocrisy” that judges the current and formerly incarcerated “as wrongdoers for whom prison is the sole answer,” and not as people who can change.
This hypocrisy can blind them to the fact that they, too, are prisoners willingly locked up within the walls of prejudice, ideology, individualism, self-sufficiency, and the idols of “a false sense of well-being.” They are, therefore, “deprived of the truth that sets us free.”
“Pointing the finger against someone who has made mistakes cannot become an alibi for concealing our own contradictions,” he added.
Pope Francis spoke of how both repentance and forgiveness are possible through the power of our faith. Members of the San Quentin community will recognize the values represented throughout the Pope’s speech. Accountability, empathy, communication and trust, as well as the transformative power of a “victim offender” dialogue can all be seen in his words.
“When violence is met with forgiveness, even the hearts of those who have done wrong can be conquered by the love that triumphs over every form of evil…God raises up true witnesses and workers of mercy,” he said.