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‘I was in prison and you came to me’

July 24, 2015
Melanie Morey

For all the world to see, Pope Francis and President Obama recently gave personal witness to Christ’s words in Matthew 25:30, “I was in prison and you came to me.” While it was an historic first prison visit for an American president, it was a relatively familiar act of pastoral outreach for a pope.

In the early part of the 20th century Pope Pius XI frequently visited the prisons in and around Rome and in 1958 Pope John XXIII made a much-heralded Christmas visit to Regina Coeli Prison, speaking with inmates about his own cousin’s incarceration for poaching and visiting with prisoners who were serving life sentences. Since that now famous Christmas visit all modern popes have made it a point to visit the imprisoned.

Pope Francis’ and President Obama’s visits were certainly intended to draw attention to the serious problems that beset the criminal justice systems in both the richest and one of the poorest countries in the Americas. But they went far beyond that. These corporal acts of mercy highlighted in very touching ways the human dignity of prisoners. Because of past deeds society has relegated these individuals literally to the periphery of society where they disappear from view and cease to be of personal concern for most of us most of the time. Both the pope and the president ventured into that periphery in the same week and did so in their own unique ways that included different primary audiences and different types of language, as well.

Pope Francis, using the language of faith – of sin and forgiveness – spoke to prisoners about the hope that is Christ and how to live lives even in prison that are inspired by hope. President Obama, on the other hand, used the language of civil society - of mistakes and second chances – speaking to those outside prison walls about how what happens there both reflects and affects society as a whole. But both leaders went beyond speechifying, each making a personal connection with people whose lives could not have seemed more different than their own.

Pope Francis made his connection in public remarks directed to a large group of prisoners at the Palmasola Rehabilitation Center in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. He introduced himself to them in the same way he introduced himself to the world right after his election as pope, as a sinner. Pope Francis said to the Bolivian inmates, “You may be asking yourselves: ‘Who is this man standing before us?’ The man standing before you is a man who has experienced forgiveness. A man who was, and is, saved from his many sins.” Francis did not distance himself from the men and women he encountered. Rather he cast himself as one of them but one transformed by God’s forgiveness. And saying he had little to give he offered the one thing he had and that he loved most – “Jesus Christ, the mercy of God the Father.”

President Obama met with only a few inmates at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution near Oklahoma City and his remarks were addressed not to the prisoners but to the press and through them to the citizens of the United States. When asked what struck him most about his visit, the president referenced the stories the prisoners had told him about their youth and their childhoods and the mistakes they made. While recognizing that these men had made stupid mistakes as young people he insisted that it was not normal that so many such Americans end up in the criminal justice system. “What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes … That’s what strikes me – there but for the grace of God.” President Obama harkened back to his own youth and his own stupid mistakes, recognizing that much of the divide between those he visited and himself was the result of pure grace – good and constructive support and good fortune. In the midst of his visit President Obama did not see these prisoners as less than human or disconnected from himself. Instead he saw himself in them, knowing their plight could just as easily have been his own.

In this one week in July a president and a pope visited prisons in two different countries in the Americas. In doing so they bore witness to seeing dignity in those who have been cast out – to seeing in them the face of Christ – and they responded with compassion and love.

Morey is director of the Office of Catholic Identity Assessment and Formation for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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