You know you’ve arrived at the prison when you turn a corner and suddenly come up against a 12-foot high concrete wall topped with rolls of barbed wire. Through the guarded security gates you catch a glimpse of low buildings all painted different colours.
They call it a Detention Centre. But it’s still a prison. They call the young detainees Juveniles in Custody. But they’re still prisoners. The youngest is 14, the oldest 25. They are here to serve sentences of one to twelve years for crimes that range from petty theft, to drug dealing, to murder. And they’ve been preparing for Pope Francis’ visit for months.
They manufactured the chair on which the Pope sat in their carpentry shop. They prepared the different types of bread they gifted him in their bakery. They spent hours practising the songs they sang for him, painting a picture for him, carving a pastoral staff for him, and months making sure that all and everything would be perfectly in its place. And it was.
By visiting the young detainees, the Pope was symbolically including all those young people who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend the World Youth Day celebrations. This gave special poignancy to the occasion and underscored the liturgical aspect of the encounter, which took the form of a Penitential Service. In fact, the Pope himself heard the confessions of five young people, and dedicated his homily to the themes of change, conversion, and encouragement.
The Pope’s Homily
“He receives sinners and eats with them”. Pope Francis began with the grumbling and complaining of the Pharisees, mumbling their disapproval of Jesus’ behaviour and trying to discredit Him. By doing so, said the Pope, they blocked “any kind of change, conversion and inclusion”. Pope Francis contrasted this attitude with the way Jesus “approaches and engages”, always giving us another chance. Sometimes it’s easier to post “signs and labels”, the Pope continued, “that ultimately serve only to divide: these people are good and those are bad; these people are the righteous and those the sinners”.
In a series of off-the-cuff remarks, Pope Francis kept returning to the theme of encouragement. Pay no attention to those who tell you “you can’t do it”, he said, describing them like cloth-eating moths. Tell them, and tell yourself especially, the Pope insisted, that “you can!”.
God’s love, said Pope Francis, “has no time for complaining”: God’s love initiates a process of “integration and transformation, healing and forgiveness”, he said. By eating with sinners, Jesus “shatters the mentality that excludes, isolates, and falsely separates ‘the good and the bad’”. Because “each of us is much more than our labels”, said Pope Francis.
“A community grows sick when it lives off relentless, negative and heartless complaining”, he continued. “A society is fruitful when it is able to generate processes of inclusion and integration…building a future through community, education and employment.”
A model of rehabilitation
In reality, this is exactly what the Pacora Juvenile Detention Centre outside Panama City tries to do. It’s one of the reasons why this particular penitentiary is considered a model of rehabilitation and reintegration in Panama, and beyond.
Its halls and passageways are plastered with posters encouraging the values of “Respect”, “Trust”, and “Responsibility”. A team of dedicated psychologists and social workers uses creativity and empowerment skills to prepare their young charges for a life beyond the prison walls – hoping that once they leave, they lose their labels, and never come back.