I was in prison and you visited me.

— Matthew 25:36

In Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Miserables, the protagonist Jean Valjean is released on parole and given a yellow identification paper that said to all he met that he was a felon. In every town he visited, he was treated like a pariah. He couldn’t find work. No inn would take him in. He was thrown out of many towns until he was graciously invited into the home of Bishop Myriel.

The good bishop gave him food and a place to stay. He didn’t inquire into Valjean’s papers. Sure, he knew he was a felon, but charity is greater than punishment. That night, Jean Valjean repaid the bishop for his kindness by stealing his silverware and some candlesticks. Yet when he was caught, rather than punishing him, the bishop tells the authorities that he gave them to Valjean as a gift. Thus began Valjean’s conversion.

Mercy. Forgiveness. Rehabilitation and a reintroduction into society. Not only does Our Lord demonstrate this in his command to visit the imprisoned in the Gospel of Matthew, but he also showed intense mercy to his fellow prisoner, hanging on the cross next to him: Saint Dismas (cf. Luke 23: 39–43).

In a similar way, Pope Francis has followed the example of the fictional bishop Myriel and Our Lord’s command in Matthew 25. Just a few weeks after his election, on Holy Thursday, March 28, 2013 he visited a youth detention center near Rome and washed the feet of twelve inmates. In his homily earlier that day for the Chrism Mass, he encouraged priests to go out to the peripheries, to the suffering and those in pain. To show mercy and to accompany them:

“We need to ‘go out,’ then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the ‘outskirts’ where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. … Dear priests, may God the Father renew in us the Spirit of holiness with whom we have been anointed. May he renew his Spirit in our hearts, that this anointing may spread to everyone, even to those ‘outskirts’ where our faithful people most look for it and most appreciate it.”

This wouldn’t be the last time he visited a detention center or prison. Over the first seven years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has visited prisons and detention centers in Chile, the United States, Italy, and many other places around the world.

His words to the prisoners repeat similar themes: dignity, humanity, mercy, forgiveness, hope, courage, and rehabilitation. He tells them that even when someone commits a crime, their dignity as a human being is not forfeited. Hence, he reminds us that it’s imperative that law enforcement authorities and those who manage prisons treat inmates with respect and dignity. They must provide for their physical, spiritual, and mental needs. To do otherwise is a violation of human rights and in this, and Pope Francis gives a stern warning about reforming prisons:

“The whole church in fidelity to the mission received from Christ” is called to show the most vulnerable people the mercy of God, the pope said. “We will be judged on this.

In our culture, we often value retribution and punishment over rehabilitation and restoration. In this way, we’re not any different from Victor Hugo’s France, which treated ex-convicts as pariahs. Here in the United States, we incarcerate more people than any other developed country. Often, they have committed lesser and non-violent crimes. Many of them languish in jail because they can’t afford to pay their bail.

In addition, mass incarceration in the United States disproportionately targets African American and Latino people (although according to this report, the disparity rates have declined somewhat). Even though some progress has been made, the poor and marginalized are incarcerated at disproportionate rates in this country.

Pope Francis has pointed this out, as well as the need to provide opportunities for rehabilitation and mercy. He has repeatedly stressed the importance of spiritual development in prison. He has described how it can be an opportunity for criminals to better themselves while paying for their crimes.

This is Mercy at work. It is what Our Lord has asked us to do. We are called as Christians, not only to visit the imprisoned, but also to accompany them with our prayers and encouragement. Pope Francis is encouraging us to do this as well. He asks us not to see the prisoner as a monster or a roach, but as a brother or sister who needs healing and mercy. The prisoner is someone we must welcome back into society as a forgiven and rehabilitated person. As Pope Francis has said, “All of us have something we need to be cleansed of or purified from. All of us.”

There’s a saying attributed to John Bradford, a man executed in the 16th century, that says in part, “There but for the Grace of God go I.” Every one of us has the potential for good and for evil. Even the best of us can commit a crime, but none of us are so irredeemable. With the grace of God we can heal, all of us—and that includes prisoners as well. May our hearts grow in love for our incarcerated brothers and sisters. When their debts are paid, may we strive—following Pope Francis’ example—to heal their wounds and welcome them back into society.


Image: Pope Francis blesses a prisoner as he visits the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia Sept. 27. CNS photo/Paul Haring

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