VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis seems to describe his life in the
Vatican almost as if he were in prison - at least as far as
his freedom of movement goes. But that is not the first thing
he cites when he talks about what he and prisoners have in
When visiting a prison, he said, "I think to myself, 'I, too,
could be here.' That is, none of us can be sure that we would
never commit a crime, something for which we'd be put in
Pope Francis' comment to a reporter from a newspaper in
Argentina in mid-May was just the most recent time he has
spoken about how everyone makes mistakes, everyone sins, and
if one's personal history and circumstances were different,
he or she could be that convict.
"They haven't had the opportunities that I have had of not
doing something stupid and ending up in prison," he told the
newspaper, La Voz del Pueblo. "This makes me cry inside. It
is deeply moving."
Continuing a practice he began as archbishop of Buenos Aires,
the pope has spent plenty of time behind bars: He celebrated
Holy Thursday Mass in a juvenile detention facility in 2013
and at Rome's Rebibbia prison in 2015; he visited the
Poggioreale prison outside Naples in March; and in the summer
of 2014, visited inmates during trips to both Calabria and
Even as pope, he continues to make a phone call every other
Saturday to young inmates he used to visit regularly in a
Buenos Aires prison.
He was scheduled to spend time May 30 with hundreds of
children of Italian inmates, including some children who had
lived in jail with their mothers. Italian law encourages
house arrest for convicted mothers of small children or
confinement with their children in supervised group homes.
However, when that is not feasible, the law allows children
to live with their mothers in prison until the age of 6.
When he goes to northern Italy in late June to venerate the
Shroud of Turin, he is scheduled to have Sunday lunch with a
group of juvenile offenders from the Ferrante Aporti
facility. And, during his July trip to South America, he is
scheduled to visit the maximum-security Palmasola prison in
Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
Pope Francis' talks to prisoners always focus on the wideness
of God's mercy.
His talks about prisons always focus on the need to ensure
incarceration is designed not only as punishment, but as a
process of education and socialization preparing a person to
return to society and function as a law-abiding citizen.
In a wide variety of settings, Pope Francis cites the 25th
chapter of Matthew and its judgment day list: Did you feed
the hungry, clothe the naked and visit prisoners?
During a general audience talk in 2014, when he was
explaining how the church is "a mother who teaches us the
works of mercy," the pope said he knew many people feel
uncomfortable with the very idea of visiting someone in
prison. They think, "It's dangerous! They are bad people," he
"Listen up," he told thousands of people gathered in St.
Peter's Square for the audience. "Each one of us is capable
of doing the same thing done by that man or woman in jail.
All of us are capable of sinning and making the same mistake
in life. They are not worse than you and I!"
Showing mercy to those who have strayed can be life changing,
he said. "Mercy overcomes every wall, every obstacle" and can
instill new life and hope in others.
While it may be easy to recognize a prisoner's need for mercy
and conversion, Pope Francis assures the inmates he visits
that asking for God's mercy and the strength to convert is
the lifelong task of every Christian.
Visiting the Isernia prison last year, the pope told inmates,
"We all make mistakes in life. And we all must ask
forgiveness and make a journey of rehabilitation so we don't
make them again."
Some people, he said, are able to "do this in their own homes
and in their own professions. Others, like you, do this in a
prison. But all of us, all of us - anyone who says they do
not need to go through a process of rehabilitation is a
Pope Francis' most systematic discussion of crime and
punishment came in a long speech he gave last October to the
International Association of Penal Law. The speech made
headlines when the pope called for a global abolition of the
death penalty and asserted that "a life sentence is just a
death penalty in disguise."
But he also looked at the sociological and political
realities behind what he described as "the vengeful trend
which permeates society" and politicians pandering to that
fear by legislating penalties that, he said, are not
proportionate to the crime.