One of the last stops on Pope Francis’ visit to the United States was perhaps the most stark. Three days after addressing what is arguably the most influential political body in the world, the pope entered the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia to speak to an audience of about 100 prisoners and family members.
“I am here as a pastor,” the pope told those gathered in the facility’s gymnasium, “but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.”
Using John 13:1-17 as the basis for his comments, Pope Francis shared with those gathered the imagery of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Though individuals take different paths, he said, all need to be cleansed by Jesus.
“Jesus seeks us out,” the pope stressed. “He wants to heal our wounds, to soothe our feet which hurt from travelling alone, to wash each of us clean of the dust from our journey. He doesn’t ask us where we have been. He doesn’t question us about what we have done. Rather, he tells us, ‘Unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me.”’
Despite their incarceration, the pope assured his audience of their divine worth, and the need to keep walking. “Jesus comes to meet us, so that he can restore our dignity as children of God. He wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust. He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realize that we have a mission, and that confinement is never the same thing as exclusion.”
Pope Francis reminded all present that rehabilitation is the responsibility of all of society—from corrections workers, to those in communities outside prisons, to the prisoners themselves. “This time in you life can only have one purpose,” he said, “to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand, and to help you rejoin society.” Such a rehabilitation, he added, would elevate the morale of all.
This is not the first time the pope has visited a correctional facility. As one of the first acts of his papacy, Pope Francis visited a juvenile prison in Rome, offering mass and physically washing the feet of twelve of the prison residents on Maundy Thursday. And this was a continuation of a practice he had established as part of his Holy Week activities while Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Pope Francis concluded his brief remarks with the encouragement that, through Christ, transformation is possible. “Let us look to Jesus, who washes our feet. He is ‘the way, and the truth, and the life.’ He comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change, the lie of thinking that no one can change. Jesus helps us to journey along the paths of life and fulfillment. May the power of his love and his resurrection always be a path leading you to new life.”