Pope visits pilgrims behind bars at Panama youth prison
Pope Francis came to this Panama City suburb on Friday to bring the celebration of World Youth Day (WYD) to the inmates of Las Garzas, a prison for young offenders.
If they hadn’t been locked up under strict security measures, the young people the pope visited would be normal pilgrims like the ones who in these days have come to Panama City bringing their hymns, gifts and joy to every WYD event.
However, these 120 youths who have spent the week practicing their hymns and making in workshops the gifts they gave today, are kids deprived of their freedom, to whom the backpack of the WYD pilgrim was handed them through the bars of their cells.
“These are the pope’s youths,” sang these young people in their white WYD T-shirts when Francis entered a small chapel to celebrate the papal ceremony.
The pope assured these youths, seated, composed, suffering from the heat and wearing their white T-shirts with the WYD symbols, that “you are part of the family” and that “we have much to share.” For example, he asked for their help in “knowing the best way to accompany your process of transformation, which, as a family, we all need.”
“You young people, those holding you in custody, authorities of the center and of the ministry, and your families, as well as the church...everyone must fight and fight to seek and find the way to insertion and transformation,” the pope said.
“But don’t fight each other,” he joked.
He urged them not to let anyone label them as good or bad, and to pay no attention to the “gossiping” of people or inmates who whisper that they’ll never get out of here.
Francis, who wanted both nonbelievers and youths of other faiths to be in the prison yard Friday, told them that “God considers you part of the family” and that He doesn’t see labels or prison sentences, just His children.
The pontiff celebrated a penitential liturgy in this clean, recently painted patio decorated with WYD symbols, and where some tents were set up with three confessionals made by inmates in the prison workshops.
The pope heard the confessions of five inmates.
Kneeling before Francis they told him of their hard lives, like the 15-year-old girl imprisoned for murder who until recently felt only bitterness, but the chance to receive absolution from the pope has produced a change and she even wanted to meet the family of the girl she killed to beg their forgiveness.
The director of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies in reformatories, Emma Alba Tejada, told the pope that his visit filled the youngsters “with emotion, hopes and dreams...and they felt blessed that you remembered them.”
“Thank you for reminding them that God loves them, and that a future without violence or crime is possible. Thank you for reminding us that we are all equal, and that in order to travel the path of virtue, which is the path of Jesus, you will be with us,” Tejada said.