Vatican officials thought Pope Francis would only celebrate Holy Thursday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, but an invitation from a government minister changed their plans.
The Italian Justice Minister, Paola Severino, “was visiting the psychiatric hospital where I serve as chaplain, and she showed interest in inviting the Pope to visit an Italian prison,” explained Monsignor Gino Belleri in a March 26 interview with CNA.
It turned out that “as soon as the Pope knew of the invitation of Minister Severino, he grabbed the occasion,” Msgr. Belleri said.
“He wanted to go to a detention center, and he wanted to do it on Holy Thursday, as he usually did as archbishop,” he added.
In the end, he chose to visit the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention center, where he will wash the feet of 12 young people this evening.
Usually, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in the Basilica of Saint John in Lateran, and it is the occasion for the people of Rome to meet with their bishop, the Pope.
Since Pope Francis will not take possession of the basilica until April 7, the Mass was expected to take place in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In preparation, the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household printed almost 4,000 tickets and delivered close to 1,400 of them.
But Pope Francis was, in fact, already thinking of doing something different.
When he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he used to celebrate Holy Thursday Mass in a prison or in any other places for the needy like hospices and slums.
This led to interesting speculation about what was going to happen with the remaining 2,600 tickets.
One anonymous source suggested to the Italian press agency AGI that the Pope wanted to deliver the remaining tickets to the poor.
“It was a false news,” stated Raffaele Iaria, director of the press agency Migrantes Press, which is linked to the Italian Bishops’ conference Migrantes Foundation.
Iaria explained March 27 that as soon as the news spread, he made a phone call to Alberto Colajacomo, the spokesperson of Caritas, the charity agency for the Diocese of Rome, who was supposed to be involved in the deliverance of the tickets.
“Colajacomo,” Iaria said, “had no information on the Pope’s plan.”
In the meantime, Justice Minister Paola Severino had already asked Pope Francis to go and visit a detention center.
Since she became member of Monti’s government in November 2011, Severino has considered reforming Italy’s prison system a top priority.
Inviting the Pope will likely be her last initiative aimed at sensitizing people and institutions to the issue, since the Monti administration is only in charge of ordinary issues, while talks for forming a new government have already begun.
Popes being interested in visiting prisons is not a novelty.
Pope Benedict XVI went to visit the Rebibbia detention center on December 18, 2011. On that occasion, Minister Severino read a letter by a detainee and underlined that “reparation and re-education” must be the main purposes of a detention center.
Pope Pius IX used to go and visit all the Romans prisons. In the last century, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have all visited detention facilities.
But today’s visit by Pope Francis will be the first time a Pope celebrates Holy Thursday Mass in a detention center.