Pope Francis’s visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia represents a different way of thinking about the humans behind bars.
There’s something macabre about hosting a photo-op inside of a prison. Waiting for the pope to arrive at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia on Sunday, inside walls topped with barbed wire, cameramen milled about while televisions blared. Harsh lights were trained on the papal chair, handmade by prisoners, which sat empty at the front of an elementary-school-style gymnasium.
The early warning sign of a Francis sighting is always his entourage. Surrounded by hordes of men in black suits and cardinals in black cassocks, the pope’s white was striking. He changed the feel of the room, just barely, smiling with unmistakable delight at the row of female inmates seated at the front.
Over the course of his six-day visit to the United States, Francis alternately preached and spoke; this was definitely preaching. He drew from the parable of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, urging inmates to embrace the possibility of redemption. “Life means ‘getting our feet dirty’ from the dust-filled roads of life and history,” Francis said. “All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed—and me, in first place.”
It is not a common way of talking to prisoners. The man often called the Holy Father said his sins are equal to those of inmates in a medium-security correctional facility. For the politicians present and the millions of Americans watching on cable, the prisoners may have seemed like props; they were symbolic lost sheep in another feel-good, highly choreographed, televised special starring the heartwarming pope, set against the backdrop of one of America’s most intractable policy failures. But Francis really seemed to mean what he said, looking each individual in the eye: God has laid a table, and all of you are invited to join. For so public a moment, it felt strangely intimate, like eavesdropping on someone else’s pep talk.
Why does America put so many people in prisons? This is a deceptively simple question. But the answer actually illuminates much about this society’s notion of justice. In the United States, the crisis of mass incarceration cannot possibly be resolved with a single visit to a correctional facility in Philadelphia, no matter how popular this pope may be. But at the very least, Francis may bring some clarity: How should America treat the sinners who inhabit its justice system?
For Francis, visiting prisons is an old habit. When he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he used to celebrate Holy Thursday mass in detention and rehabilitation centers, as well as at hospitals and hospices. Since becoming pope, he has spent his Holy Thursdays at a juvenile-detention center, a home for the disabled, and a prison facility, each time washing the feet of 12 people, presumably in honor of the 12 apostles. He is the first pope in modern history to celebrate Holy Thursday outside of a basilica, according to Inés San Martín of Crux.
“My experience of Francis—and I’ve known him for 10 years—is that it’s the real deal. It’s not like he discovered care and compassion—no, this is the way he is,” said Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Indianapolis.
These visits embody Francis’s vision of how Christians should live out the gospel. As he said to a gathering of bishops before the conclave where he was elected pope, “The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”
One Francis-y buzzword to use here is encounter. The pope is constantly saying—and showing—that Christians belong out among people; that pastors should “smell like the sheep.” He explains this best in metaphor, as he did during his homily on migrants on the island of Lampedusa in the early days of his papacy:
We see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!” and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference.
In the United States, incarceration is often discussed in terms of responsibility and choices; imprisonment is the price people pay for their poor decisions. But Francis understands crime through the language of sin. This is an important difference: The thing to remember about sin is that no one is exempt. “Listen carefully to this: Each of us is capable of doing the same thing that that man or that woman in prison did,” Francis said in 2014. “All of us have the capacity to sin and to do the same, to make mistakes in life. They are no worse than you and me!”
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