In the picture: Children play on a stage at the Palmasola prison in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, while Pope Francis listens to a greeting from Archbishop Juárez of Sucre, July 10, 2015. Credit: EWTN.
.- Pope Francis on Friday told Bolivian inmates that he too is a sinner who has experienced the merciful love of God, and encouraged them not to fall into despair but to accept forgiveness and to sustain themselves with prayer.
“You may be asking yourselves: Who is this man standing before us?’” the Pope reflected with prisoners during his July 10 visit to Bolivia’s Palmasola Rehabilitation Center in Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
“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.”
Pope Francis said that although he doesn’t have much more to offer them, “I want to share with you what I do have and what I love. It is Jesus, Jesus Christ, the mercy of the Father.”
Palmasola is Bolivia's largest and most overcrowded prison, which holds as many as 5,000 prisoners – and their families. Young children are allowed to live with incarcerated parents, and while the perimeter of Palmasola is secured by guards, much of the interior functions as a small town, with its own economy. An August 2013 riot in the prison, which began as a gang rivalry, killed 31 persons, including an 18 month-old child who was living there.
Pope Francis met with the prisoners on his last day in Bolivia, the second of his three-stage, July 5-13 tour of South America. The Pope spent three days in Ecuador before coming to Bolivia, and will transfer to Paraguay Friday afternoon.
The Pope was greeted by Archbishop Jesús Juárez Párraga of Sucre, head of prison chaplaincy in the country. He reflected that in prisoners “we feel the contradictory sign of being victims and perpetrators, evidence of a society which produces poverty, inequality, and violence … and an incoherence between the great guarantees of rights and the administration of justice, which in fact flagrantly wounds rights.”
Noting the more than 300 percent overcrowding in Bolivian prisons, Archbishop Juárez said that 84 percent of Bolivian detainees do not even have a set trial date. These figures, he charged, “call into question the ends of justice and of the prison system.”
Indeed, most of the prisoners in Palmasola have not been convicted, and are merely awaiting trial in the gridlocked and corrupt Bolivian justice system, and some are detained over unpaid debts. Transparency International gave Bolivia a score of 35 out of 100 for perceived public sector corruption in 2014 – on par with Mexico, slightly less corrupt than China, and slightly more corrupt than Argentina.
In the face of this, Archbishop Juárez said that “far from condemnation and finding fault, dear Vicar of Christ, we wish to unite our hearts and efforts with public authorities and civil society institutions, to seek together economic and structural solutions to the problems of justice in general and of penal justice in particular.”
The archbishop's address was followed by the testimony of three detainees, each of whom related part of their life, and their experience at Palmasola, including the long waits for trial, overcrowding, and corruption.
Beginning his address, Pope Francis told the inmates: “I could not leave Bolivia without seeing you, without sharing the 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.”
“Jesus came to show the love which God has for us. For you, you, you, and for me,” he said, explaining that this love is both powerful and real, and takes seriously the plight of those whom the Lord loves.
This love is also something that heals, forgives and raises up, and is close to us and restores our dignity, the Pope continued, adding, “we can lose this dignity in so many ways. But Jesus is stubborn: he gave his very life to restore the identity we had lost.”
One reflection he said could help in understanding this is the fact that Christ's disciples, Saints Peter and Paul, were also prisoners.
“They too lost their freedom. But there was something that sustained them, something that did not let them yield to despair, that experience of darkness and meaninglessness.” That something, he said, “was prayer, both individually and with others.”
Praying for themselves and others became a network that helped maintain hope and kept them from falling into despair. It encourages us to keep going forward, Francis observed.
Once Christ becomes a part of our lives, we can no longer be prisoners of our past, but instead “we begin look to the present, and we see it differently, with a different kind of hope. We begin to see ourselves and our lives in a different light” and are able to make a new start.
He encouraged the inmates to look at the Crucified Christ whenever they feel sad, depressed, or negative.
“Look at his face. He sees us; in his eyes there is a place for us. We can all bring to Christ our wounds, our pain, our sins,” he said.
“In his wounds, there is a place for our own wounds. There they can be soothed, washed clean, changed and healed. He died for us, for me, so that he could stretch out his hand and lift us up.”
He urged the inmates to spend time talking with the priests who minister at the prison: “Jesus wants to help you get up, always.”
Francis then noted that being “shut in” is not the same thing as being “shut out,” and explained that detention is merely a process of reintegration into society.
“I know that there are many things here that make it hard: overcrowding, justice delayed, a lack of training opportunities and rehabilitation policies, violence,” he said, calling for a quicker and more efficient cooperation among institutions in finding solutions.
However, despite these challenges he said they shouldn’t think that all is lost, because there are things they can still do today.
The way they live together in the center “depends to some extent on yourselves,” the Pope said, noting that at times suffering and deprivation “can make us selfish of heart and lead to confrontation.”
“But we also have the capacity to make these things an opportunity for genuine fraternity. Help one another. Do not be afraid to help one another,” he said. “The devil is looking for rivalry, division, gangs. Keep working to make progress.”
Before asking the prisoners to pray together in silence for few moments, Pope Francis extended his greeting to their families: “I would ask you to take my greetings to your families. Their presence and support are so important! Grandparents, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, couples, children: all of them remind us that life is worth living and that we should keep fighting for a better world.”
Pope Francis also greeted those who work at Palmasola prison, saying they have “an important responsibility for facilitating the process of reintegration. It is their responsibility to raise up, not to put down, to restore dignity and not to humiliate; to encourage and not to inflict hardship. This means putting aside a mentality which sees people as 'good' or 'bad', but instead tries to focus on helping others. This will help to create better conditions for everyone. It will give dignity, provide motivation, and make us all better people.”
He concluded by leading everyone in an extended moment of silent prayer, and then asking the inmates to continue praying for him, “because I too have my mistakes and I too must do penance.”
Following his comments, the detainees gave Pope Francis a hammock, a painting, a wooden carving of the Last Supper, and a tshirt.