.- When a juvenile inmate in a California prison wrote to Pope Francis, he did not expect a response.
But he received one, in the form a Jan. 21 letter from the Holy Father, inviting him to take advantage of the Holy Year of Mercy.
“Know that the Holy Father is thinking of you and praying for you. And please remember to pray for me, because I greatly need your prayers,” the Pope said in his letter.
Carlos Adrian Vazquez Jr., now 18, spoke to CNN about the letter. “I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think the Pope would write to someone who's behind bars,” he said.
Vazquez was sentenced to 11 years in prison for manslaughter. He began serving his sentence at age 16.
The Pope’s letter began: “Dear Carlos, May the peace of Jesus Christ be with you!” Pope Francis encouraged Vazquez and the other inmates to make use of the Holy Door of Mercy that the Archbishop of Los Angeles would open at the prison.
Catholics who meet certain conditions – including receiving Confession and Holy Communion, and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father – may receive a plenary indulgence when they pass through a designated Holy Door, a special door set aside for the Catholic Church’s Jubilee of Mercy.
“I pray that as you and your fellow residents celebrate the opening of the Holy Door, you may receive these gifts and be filled with peace and hope,” the Pope said.
Vazquez needed to hear that message.
He had dropped out of school at age 15 and joined a gang. He told CNN that his crime was connected to a gang fight in which someone was killed.
“I wasn't the one who did it, but because I was there I was charged with the same crime,” he said.
Although Vazquez had wanted to end his life, according to CNN, the Pope's letter changed that. He now sees hope and a future. He has written to the family of his victim.
“I ask them to forgive me and told them no words would ever give them back the life I destroyed, but I hope one day they can forgive me for my actions and now I just ask for forgiveness and I want to live the life that my victim didn't have a chance to live and be good.”
“If society does not forgive me, I know God forgives me for my sins,” Vazquez added.
He characterized the Pope’s letter as “a message from God, that we are all humans.” He told CNN that the Pope “gives us hope that God wants all of us to be equal and we all commit mistakes, and we can get up and continue.”
Vazquez had written the Pope: “Being an outcast of society, I want the world to see us for who we truly are: human beings, who make mistakes like everybody else. But we are able to rise again like a Phoenix.”
He told the Pope he wants to become a leader like labor advocate Cesar Chavez, civil rights advocate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., South African President Nelson Mandela and Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai.
Father Michael Kennedy, S.J., gave guidance to Vazquez and other youth people who wrote letters to the Pope.
He said that Vazquez got into many fights and was very focused on his gang when he first arrived in the juvenile facility. But after receiving his final sentence and after many weekly visits from his anguished parents, he began to change.
“It's easy to say you've changed, but the change is in the actions of someone,” Fr. Kennedy said, according to CNN. “He started to read a lot of articles about the Pope, and he felt he was a person who had transformed his own self, and he knew that the Pope had a special place in his heart for the inmates, prisoners.”
Vazquez is preparing for a transfer to Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California.
Update March 8 - Below is a statement from Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles:
I had the privilege to meet Carlos at the Juvenile Detention Center near L.A. and talk to him about his letter. It is sad to see so many young men and women in this prison and most of them having long sentences, including life sentences. I told Carlos that he is lucky to get a letter from the Pope.
His letter really shows our Holy Father’s compassion and love for young people and people at the ‘peripheries.’ The Pope is setting an example for all of us in the Church — we have to rediscover the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, including visiting the prisoner.
In fact, Pope Francis makes it a point to visit prisoners wherever he travels. And he says that whenever he goes into a prison, he always asks himself: “Why them and not me?” Why are they behind bars and I am not? It’s a good question — and one we should keep asking ourselves. Because we are all sinners who need God’s healing mercy.
And we need to remember — that God’s mercy can change even the heart that has been darkened by the worst sins. Even the hearts of those whom our society throws away and judges to be not worthy.
Carlos is a normal young man, just like any of us. He obviously made a mistake. He has asked forgiveness from God and from the people he has hurt and he is at peace. He said he owes his peace to Jesus and his parents, they go to visit him every week. We will keep praying for Carlos and everyone else in our detention centers here and around the country.