Pope's Address at Roman Prison

«Only That Child Who Was Laid in a Manger Is Able to Bestow Upon All This Complete Liberation»

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ROME, DEC. 19, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave Sunday when he visited the prison of Rebbiba in northern Rome

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Dear brothers and sisters,

I visit you this morning with great joy and emotion shortly before the celebration of the Lord’s birth. I offer a warm greeting to all, in particular the minister of justice, Honorable Paola Severino, the chaplains, whom I thank for the words of welcome addressed to me in their name. I greet Dr. Carmelo Cantone, the prison director, and the employees, prison police and volunteers who give their best for the activities of this institute. And I greet all of you prisoners in a special way, manifesting my nearness to you.

«I was in prison and you came to visit me» (Matthew 25:36). These are the words of the last judgment, as told by the Evangelist Matthew, and these words of the Lord, in which he identifies himself with prisoners, fully express the sentiments of my visit among you today. Wherever there is someone who is hungry, a stranger, a sick person, a prisoner, there is Christ himself who awaits our visit and our help. This is the principal reason why I am happy to be here, to pray, to dialogue, to listen. The Church has always counted visiting prisoners among the corporal works of mercy (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2447). For this to be complete there must be a complete capacity for welcoming the prisoner, «making space for him with our time, in our home, in our friendships, in our laws, in our cities» (Italian Bishops’ Conference, «Evangelizzazione e testimonianza della carità,» 39). In fact I would like to listen to each one’s personal story, but unfortunately that is not possible; I have come however simply to say to you that God loves you with an infinite love, and you are always sons of God. And the same Only-Begotten Son of God, the Lord Jesus, experienced prison, was tried by a court and was most brutally condemned to death.

On the occasion of my recent apostolic trip to Benin in November I signed a postsynodal apostolic exhortation in which I re-emphasized the Church’s concern for justice in political communities, writing: «Independent judiciary and prison systems are urgently needed, therefore, for the restoration of justice and the rehabilitation of offenders. It is time to put a stop to miscarriages of justice and ill-treatment of prisoners, and the widespread non-enforcement of the law which represents a violation of human rights, as well as imprisonment either without trial or else with much-delayed trial. The Church […] recognizes her prophetic mission towards all those affected by crime and their need for reconciliation, justice and peace. Prisoners are human persons who, despite their crime, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They need our care» («Africae munus,» 77).

Dear brothers and sisters, human and divine justice are very different. Certainly, men are not able to work divine justice, but they must at least look to it, try to see the profound spirit that animates it, that it might enlighten human justice too to avoid — as unfortunately is not a rare occurrence — the situation in which the prisoner becomes one excluded. God, in fact, is he who powerfully proclaims justice but who, at the same time, cares for wounds with the balm of mercy.

The parable in Matthew’s Gospel (20:1-16) about the workers called to work for a day in the vineyard helps us to understand in what this difference between human and divine justice consists, because it makes the delicate relationship between justice and mercy explicit. The parable describes a farmer who hires workers for his vineyard. However, he hires them at different times of the day and so some work the whole day and others only an hour. When it comes time to pay them the owner causes surprise and arguments among the workers.

The problem has to do with the generosity of the owner of the vineyard, which those present regard rather as injustice. He decides to give the same pay to the workers who came in the morning and those that came in the late afternoon. From the human perspective this decision is a real injustice; from God’s perspective it is an act of goodness, because divine justice gives to each what he deserves and, moreover, includes mercy and forgiveness.

Justice and mercy, justice and charity, the hinges upon which the social doctrine of the Church turns, are two different realities only for men, who carefully distinguish a just act from an act of love. For us justice is «what is owed to another» and mercy is what is given out of goodness. And the one seems to exclude the other. But it is not so for God: in him justice and mercy coincide; there is no just action that is not also an act of mercy and forgiveness and, at the same time, there is no act of mercy that is not perfectly just.

How far God’s logic is from ours! And how different is his way of acting from ours! The Lord invites us to understand and follow the true spirit of the law, observing it perfectly through love of those in need: «Love is the perfect observance of the law,» St. Paul writes (Romans 13:10): Our justice will be all the more perfect the more it is animated by love of God and our brothers.

Dear friends, the detention system turns on two axes, both important: on one hand, the protection of society from possible threats, on the other hand, the reintegration of those who have made mistakes without stripping away their dignity and without excluding them from social life. Both aspects have their relevance and are instated so as not to create a «gulf» between the actual reality of imprisonment and that envisioned by law, which sees the function of re-education in punishment as a fundamental element along with respect for the rights and dignity of persons. Human life belongs to God alone, who has bestowed it, and it cannot be left to the mercy of anyone, not even our free will! We are called to protect the precious pearl of our own life and that of others.

I know that the overcrowding and deterioration of prisons can make detention all the more bitter: I have received various letters from prisoners that underscore this. It is important that institutions promote an attentive analysis of today’s prison situation, that they examine the structures, methods, personnel in such a way that the prisoners never have to deal with a «double punishment»; it is important to promote a development of the penal system that, while respecting justice, is always more adequate to the exigencies of the human person, even with recourse to punishment that does not involve imprisonment or to different forms of detention.

Dear friends, today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent. May the Lord’s birth, which already draws near, rekindle the hope and love of your heart. The birth of the Lord Jesus, which we will commemorate in a few days, reminds us of his mission of bringing salvation to all men, none excluded. His salvation is not imposed, but reaches us through an act of love, of mercy and forgiveness that we ourselves know how to realize.

The Child of Bethlehem will be happy when all men return to God with a renewed heart. Let us ask him in silence and in prayer for us all to be released from the prison of sin, from haughtiness and pride: Everyone in fact needs to leave this interior prison to be truly free from evil, from anxiety and from death. Only that Child who was laid in a manger is able to bestow upon all this complete liberation!

I would like to conclude by telling you that the Church supports and encourages every effort directed toward guaranteeing everyone a dignified life. Be assured that I am near to each one of you, your friends, your babies, your young children, your elderly relatives and I carry all of you in my heart before God. May the Lord bless you and your future!

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
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