As soon as Benedict XVI entered the chapel of Rebibbia Prison — a lovely modern church with splendid bronze doors — it was immediately clear from the standing ovation which the inmates gave him that the meeting would be important and not in the very least taken for granted. As with every Visit of a Pope to inmates — since the first Visits in recent decades made by John XXIII and Paul VI — this Visit too impressed and moved public opinion with widespread coverage by the media.
This was a very positive sign and prompts reflection on the profound persistence, even in a broadly secularized society, where the inhuman elements are increasingly prevalent, of the Gospel teaching — later consecrated by Christian Tradition as one of the corporal works of mercy — which the Pope has spoken of this Advent season when the call to wait for the Lord, his closeness and the Last Judgement rings out more clearly with the Son of Man’s overwhelming affirmation: “I was in prison and you came to me”.
Yes, a great many people have understood the truest meaning of this Visit. And Paola Severino, the Italian Minister of Justice who has paid unusual attention in these days to the grievous and dramatic problem of the prison situation, spoke moving words. However, what was particularly impressive in addition to Benedict’s reflection was his truly unprecedented decision to have a direct and public conversation with the inmates.
The dialogue between the inmates and “everyone’s Pope” — as one of them described him — really was a historic event. Thus, with simplicity and affection the Bishop of Rome showed his love for people who have erred and have committed crimes and sins, but who are correcting their ways.
“I love you”, said another of them, who asked permission to cling to him with the others so as to be uplifted to God.
“I love you too”, a deeply moved Pope Benedict answered him. A Pope who knows that all human beings need to journey on together to reach the Lord.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 19, 2020
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