On Sunday, Pope Francis held a special mass for 1,000 prisoners in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.
His message was one of hope and mercy for the prisoners, who came from 12 different countries. They were present with their families, prison guards, penitentiary employees, prison chaplains, and others. In total, over 4,000 gathered together for the service.
The event was open to prisoners of all types, including minors and those on house arrest, as well as prisoners with varying prison sentences. Tickets were free and available online. Prisoners participated in various parts of the liturgy.
The mass was the pontiff's latest outreach to the incarcerated and was a part of the Vatican's Holy Year of Mercy. Pope Francis has visited prisons all around the world, even celebrating Holy Thursday last year by washing the feet of prisoners. However, this was the first time so many prisoners were received at the Vatican.
Attendees also heard testimonies of transformation and reconciliation from prisoners who have made lifestyle changes as a result of their incarcerations. One woman even joined the man who had murdered her son to speak to the crowd on finding freedom from hatred.
During his homily on Sunday, Pope Francis urged authorities to strive for better prison conditions. He advocated for support programs and policies that will help prisoners upon their reentry into society. He reminded political leaders that those who have been convicted still have dignity. And he called for the abolishment of the death penalty.
The pope spoke also about his own personal reflections during his visits to prisons: "Let me tell you, every time I go into a prison I ask myself, 'Why them and not me?' Everyone has the possibility to make mistakes, everyone."
He encouraged prisoners to have hope, reminding them that hope "is the strength to keep moving forward. It is the power to press on towards the future and a changed life. It is the incentive to look to tomorrow, so that the love we have known, for all our failings, can show us a new path. In a word, hope is the proof, lying deep in our hearts, of the power of God's mercy."
The pontiff also asked those who are not incarcerated to trust the power of rehabilitation. "We don't think about the possibility that people can change their lives … But in this way we forget that we are all sinners," Pope Francis reminded them. "And often, without being aware of it, we too are prisoners."
Like Pope Francis, Prison Fellowship® believes prisoners are worthy of hope and forgiveness. Prison Fellowship provides multiple programs for those in prison, bringing hope to dark places and offering the incarcerated a chance for brighter futures. We also offer programs for those who are facing reentry, and our advocacy group is fighting hard for justice reform in the United States.
You can find more information on justice and prison reform on our Advocacy page. If you are interested in supporting Prison Fellowship's mission in remembering those in prison, please visit our Donations or Volunteer sections.
To read Pope Francis' homily in full, please visit the Vatican Radio site for the official transcript.