Pope Benedict told inmates at Rome’s largest prison that he supports efforts by the Italian government to reduce chronic overcrowding in the country’s jails.
“It is important that the institutions promote a careful analysis of the prison system today, verifying the structures, resources, personnel, so that prisoners do not serve a ‘double punishment,’” the Pope said to over 300 prisoners in the city’s Rebbibia Prison on Dec. 18.
The Pope said he has already received many letters from prisoners highlighting the issue. Italy has some of the worst prison overcrowding in Europe, with a current prison population of 68,000, which is 24,000 people above capacity. Rebbibia itself has 500 more inmates than the 1,240 it was constructed to hold.
The Pope said it is important “to promote a development of the prison system, which, while in full respect for justice, is increasingly tailored to the needs of the human person.” This, he said, could even include “the use of the non-custodial sentences” or “different modes of detention.”
Primarily, however, the Pope desired to express the love and solidarity of Christ and the Church with prisoners during Advent and Christmas. He recalled that “the only-begotten Son of God, The Lord Jesus, experienced prison” when he was “subjected to trial before a court and suffered the most cruel death sentence.”
Pope Benedict also recalled the words of Jesus, as described by St. Matthew, which will be uttered at the Last Judgment, “I was in prison and you came to me.”
Wherever there is someone who is hungry, a stranger, sick, or incarcerated, “there is Christ himself who awaits our visit and our help,” he said.
“This is the main reason that makes me happy to be here, to pray, talk and listen. The Church has always counted visiting those in prison among its corporal works of mercy.”
The Pope told the prisoners he would “like to be able to listen to the personal story of each one of you, but, unfortunately, this is not possible.” However, he said that he came to tell them “that God loves you with infinite love, and you are always the same children of God.”
Christ’s parable of the vineyard owner who gave his laborers the same pay regardless of when they arrived at work “clearly explains the delicate relationship between justice and mercy” and that it is never too late to repent, he said.
Towards the end of his hour-long visit the Pope took questions from some of the inmates, an experience that seemed to deeply touch both the prisoners and the pontiff.
One inmate, Federico, explained how prisoners with HIV are often viewed “ferociously,” and with great hostility. “People speak ferociously even against the Pope,” Benedict XVI replied, “but nonetheless we have to move on.”
Another inmate, Alberto, told Pope Benedict that he felt like “a new man” after serving his sentence and was now looking forward to going home to his two-month-old daughter named Gaia, whose photo he showed the Pope.
“I am happy that you consider yourself a new man and that you have a splendid daughter,” the Pope said, as Alberto began to weep. He added, “I pray and hope that you can soon embrace your daughter and wife and form a splendid family.”
Pope Benedict then greeted both inmates and guards individually, with many of them giving him Christmas presents, including their own artwork. Meanwhile, other prisoners led the group in singing popular Italian Christmas carols, such as St. Alphonsus Liguori’s “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (You come down from the stars).
The Pope then led everybody in praying the Our Father, before imparting his apostolic blessing. As he left the prison, he shook hands with many of the inmates and gave them individual blessings.