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Paschal candle program brings light to prisoners' lives, chaplain says

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ROME — Used at the Easter vigil and at baptisms and funerals, the paschal candle symbolizes Christ who brings light and hope to a world lost in the darkness of sin and death.

However, in an Italian prison 45 miles south of Rome, the candle's meaning takes on a whole new dimension as inmates grab their paintbrushes and decorate paschal candles in preparation for one of the holiest celebrations in Christianity.

The "Light of Freedom" project, an initiative promoted by the Inspectorate General of Italian Prison Chaplains, aims to have hundreds of paschal candles ready for Easter.

Father Raffaele Grimaldi, inspector general of the association that represents Italy's prison chaplains, said Feb. 23 that the project not only gives inmates an opportunity to work, but also instills in them "the values of freedom and justice by affirming the dignity of the person."

"Even while being imprisoned after having committed crimes, we cannot close the window of hope" to them, Father Grimaldi said. "We must always give a chance to those who have made a mistake to stand up once again."

"Just as Pope Francis has said," outreach to prisoners must be about "using mercy, not judging, not pointing the finger because none of us" is completely without sin or failures, he said.

Located in what was once a fortress built in the 16th century, the prison in Paliano houses more than 70 men and women who have testified as witnesses for the state against associates or accomplices and require special protection.

In 2017, Pope Francis visited the prison and celebrated the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper there, washing the feet of 12 inmates.

In his homily, the pope encouraged the prisoners to "perform a help or a service for your companions here in prison."

"This is love, this is like washing the feet," he said. "It means being the servant of the other."

The inmates have taken the pope's advice to heart in an innovative way by preparing the ornate candles for some 200 prison chapels across Italy, Father Grimaldi said.

"We have a professor who is teaching them an art course as well as how to paint on candles," he said. "The beautiful thing is that these candles will go to all the chapels in the Italian prisons. So, it is a beautiful sign."

The project, he added, "was born precisely to give a message" of hope to both the inmates painting the candles as well as to those receiving them — a message that the light of freedom can only be found "in Christ risen."

"He gives us true freedom because by rising from the dead, he destroyed sin, he freed men and women from their slavery, he has freed them from evil, he raised them up," Father Grimaldi said.

Painting sacred images on the paschal candles, he added, also gives inmates "an opportunity to reflect on their own relationship with God."

"For them, it will be a path of light especially because in prison, where there is darkness, this project wants to announce the light of freedom. It's the small things, small signs that help prisoners find themselves so that, through their work, they can reflect" on their lives, he said.

Father Grimaldi said he is hoping to deliver one of the paschal candles to Pope Francis to use in the chapel at his residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

"It is my wish to give it to the pope because he has been to Paliano, and he knows the reality of the prison" there, he said.

The chaplain also said he was happy that the project was able to move forward, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused many prisons to reduce activities for inmates in an effort to prevent the spread of infection.

"My idea was to offer a hand to those who are inside and who are often marginalized and abandoned in this time of pandemic," Father Grimaldi said.

"While they are unable to have many visits, walk around inside or do many activities, we can extend a hand to those in jail, those in Paliano, and help relieve some of the distress caused by the pandemic," he said.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021