On Holy Thursday, Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in the Casal de Marmo, a juvenile detention center on the outskirts of Rome.
ZENIT interviewed a chaplain at the prison, Father Gaetano Geco, who described interesting aspects of his work with minors.
Father Gaetano belongs to the Franciscan Family of Capuchin Terciaries of the Virgin of Sorrows, a spiritual family founded by Monsignor Luis Amigo of Valencia, Spain.
Although he is from San Giovanni Retondo, the area of Padre Pio, the chaplain chose the order because he fell in love with their apostolate: the re-education of young people. He studied in the seminary and did his novitiate in Albacete, Spain, and was ordained a priest in Rome. He worked in Cerdena for several years in a house of rehabilitation. Since 1981 he has been chaplain in the prison for minors of Casal de Marmo. It is a prison in the true sense of the word.
ZENIT: These inmates were already visited by Benedict XVI, no?
Father Gaetano: Benedict XVI celebrated Mass here in 2007; it was an extraordinary experience. The youths saw him up close. Benedict was moved; you could see it in his eyes as he shook their hands. It was a spring day full of light and we prepared for the visit for a whole month.
ZENIT: And now Francis …
Father Gaetano: Now Pope Francis is coming to meet us; this is exciting everyone. The young people are awaiting the Pope. He is going to celebrate Mass as he did in Buenos Aires in a place of suffering, of the poor. If we were able to go to the essence of the Gospel with less formalities it would be wonderful. I have spent much time in the prison reading the Gospel with youths and a whole new world opens up from there.
ZENIT: Are you preparing anything?
Father Gaetano: There is no need to prepare anything for Pope Francis because he wants to kneel on the floor. What people remember are the simple things. One can make a wonderful speech, but simple people want to see gestures, such as going to pay for the hotel, that has made an impression, or when a Pope gets out of the car to greet the people without fear of being shot.
ZENIT: What strikes young people most?
Father Gaetano: When they come here they think that the religious in Borgo Amigo have perhaps a lovely apartment and they are astonished that we live as they do. And what we do, we do together with them. One of the mistakes is to consider them sick. Yes, because of the lack of care that they never had, of their inner emptiness, of the lack of affection because most of the people that said they loved them abandoned them or betrayed them. They made them suffer. And to meet a person who gratuitously puts his life and all that he has at their disposition is the loveliest thing that has ever happened to them.
ZENIT: Let’s talk about the youths of the prison. How is the decision made to send them to prison or to give them alternative measures?
Father Gaetano: According to the present Italian law, before going to prison young people go to a centre of immediate reception, in which in 72 hours the magistrate helped by a team made up of a social worker, an educator and a psychologist determines whether an individual goes to prison or is handled with alternative measures, such as a rehabilitation community, etc. Those who do not respect the alternative measures or the more serious cases end up in prison.
ZENIT: Up to what age are minors in prison?
Father Gaetano: In fulfilling their sentence they can be up to 21 years old. Instead someone who has committed a crime at 18 years old goes to a prison for adults.
ZENIT: What is the situation of these youths?
Father Gaetano: There is much rebellion and violence but also a desire to be redeemed, especially a youth who has committed a serious offense. The most common offenses are against the patrimony and the use of toxic substances.
ZENIT: Do those who fall prey to drugs find a way out?
Father Gaetano: There is a medical centre in the prison where psycho-physical rehabilitation of young people is brought about, [youth] who often arrive in very poor health conditions. And this is a great positive service. Then it is necessary to find a team of educators to help them, to listen to them and to try to understand their problems and direct them to positive situations.
ZENIT: Is the possibility for young people to recover different from that of adults?
Father Gaetano: Yes for two reasons: because they are minors and they want to get back as soon as possible to freedom, and because of the great advantage that they are few in comparison to the great mass of detainees.
ZNEIT: How many are there in Casal de Marmo? And when they learned that the Pope was coming what did they say?
Father Gaetano: There are 48 in total divided in a group of nine women and two groups of men. The majority of young people in the juvenile prison are of the Muslim religion. The other group — the minority of Italians as well as the Orthodox — when they learned that the Pope was coming to Casal de Marmo on Maundy Thursday all realized that it was important. A Neopolitan youth said to me: “Finally I will be able to shake the hand of someone important.”