Prison Chaplain: The Holy Father's Visit to Poggioreale Prison Goes Beyond a Catechesis

Fr. Franco Esposito Speaks on the Significance on Pope Francis’ Meal with Detainees in One of the Worst Prisons in Italy

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Father Franco Esposito, chaplain of the Poggioreale prison, which the Pope visited in Naples today, has seen real flowers bloom. In a prison described as the worst in Italy, there are those who have discovered a vocation to the priesthood, where families have been reconciled and where thieves and murderers have decided to change their life and point themselves to the good.

The Pope ate lunch with some of the detainees. It was “an evangelical scene, which goes beyond a catechesis,” said Fr. Franco Esposito, chaplain of the Poggioreale prison. Fr. Esposito spoke with ZENIT the day before the Holy Father’s visit to the prison.  

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ZENIT: Poggioreale is one of the oldest prisons in Italy; it is also one of the fullest. What reality will the Pope meet on Saturday?

Father Esposito: It’s a difficult reality. Up to a month ago, the Poggioreale prison suffered from an excessive prison population. We had reached 2900 detainees when its capacity is for 1400. We had to limit the projects. Only 200 of the 1900 fixed prisoners work and a good number of them are locked in their cells for 22 hours a day.

ZENIT: In other words, this prison continues to be ‘Italy’s hell’, as many describe it.

Father Esposito: Improvements have been made but it continues to be one of the worst prisons of Italy. The problem is that many were transferred to other prisons and several activities and re-education projects of social reinsertion were interrupted. Because these activities are the only worthwhile things when one is in prison. People improve when they are in contact with a positive reality, with a project that makes them grow, mature, be conscious of the evil committed. When this happens in a human being, the desire is born to live differently, to live doing good.

ZENIT: Do you have any experiences that exemplify this?

Father Esposito: Yes, especially in the groups of evangelization present in all the blocks. Hence there is reflection on one’s life, many become conscious of their crimes, of their sins and mature a desire to direct their life toward the good. The encounter with an agent, with a volunteer is fundamental, because he/she is a person who looks at the detainee, not at the crime he committed, to accept him as a person. There are so many failures, but also many lovely experiences. For instance, we have one youth who came out of prison six years ago and who is now a volunteer; he looks after other youths, and engages in this service of compassion. Also other detainees, once they have been released, on meeting a minimum of acceptance outside and a small job re-entry, have been able to sever their negative relations and begin a new life.

ZENIT: Do you think that the present penitentiary system is adequate to address these types of demands?

Father Esposito: No, because a political plan of prevention is needed first, namely attention to the weakest groups. Let’s tell the truth, as Pope Francis said. The small fish are in prison, while the big ones are outside swimming freely. Therefore, as the prison is structured now, it is an institution that does not give what the person has a right to: re-education, re-entry, affection.

ZENIT: In light of all this, what meaning does the Pope’s presence here have?

Father Esposito: The Pope is coming personally to Poggioreale to eat lunch with the detainees. This is especially significant, because Francis is not coming to do a celebration or a prayer. He is coming to sit here at table with the detainees. It’s an evangelical proclamation: Jesus liked to dine with Publicans and sinners. Christ did not judge those people, but was at their side.

ZENIT: How did the detainees receive the news that the Pope was going to sit beside them?

Father Esposito: They understood the Holy Father’s intentions and wanted to return his affection by preparing this event with care for months. For instance, they have worked more hours a day restoring the church, arranging the garden. They purchased a statue of Saint Francis and with their hands they have made an image of Pope Francis in wrought iron. They have also followed a cooking course to prepare the lunch. In addition, there was spiritual preparation. All the detainees of all the blocks took part in the group of prayer and catechesis, knowing that the Pope is coming to confirm the presence of the Church, that he does not exclude them but welcomes them. We certainly have to lament clearly the evil, the injustices, the camorra (name of the Neapolitan Mafia), but we are called above all to love the person, because only love changes our heart. And the Pope not only teaches this, he shows it continually with his words, and with his concrete gestures.

ZENIT: How did you choose the persons who ate with the Holy Father?

Father Esposito: We drew a raffle so that there would be a representative from each block. Therefore, there are drug addicts, transsexuals and four AIDS sufferers. Another guest at the table is from the clinical center and he is in a wheelchair. The only one we chose directly is an Argentine, in prison for the international transport of drugs; he still has 15 years to serve; he is going to ask the Pope a question. In each case there will only be the detainees and no authority, by the wish of Pope Francis himself.

ZENIT: So they cooked for Francis?

Father Esposito: Yes. They cooked what they eat every day, but with their heart. This is also the Holy Father’s wish: a simple meal, as that of the detainees every day. There were those who wanted caterers to come in, but the idea reached Rome and Francis himself blocked the proposal. Therefore, on the table will be baked noodles, slices of beef, cauliflower and potatoes.

The dessert will be for all the persons of the prison. It was an initiative of the President of the Tribunal of Vigilance, who wanted to offer it to everyone, that is, 1900 sweets.

ZENIT: I was looking at this phrase in the picture: “Nothing is born of diamonds, flowers are born of manure.”

Father Esposito: Yes, there is, in particular, a very beautiful flower, that has been here for four years, and who will leave soon. He is a 27-year-old youth, whose name I will not mention, who once he is out will begin seriously to undertake the path to the priesthood. It’s something that moves me. He will also eat at the table with the Pope. There are also other cases, of persons who have been reconciled with their wives, who had no life or rules, and have begun to discover a new way of living in society and in the family – many flowers in the midst, also, of many failures.

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Salvatore Cernuzio

Crotone, Italy Bachelor's degree in Communication Sciences, Information and Marketing (2008) and Master's degree in Publishing and Journalism (2010) from LUMSA University of Rome. Vatican Radio. Rome Seven. "Ecclesia in Urbe. Social Communications Office of the Vicariate of Rome. Second place in the Youth category of the second edition of the Giuseppe De Carli Prize for religious information.

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