PHILADELPHIA — Has there been another world leader who needed so few words to make his point? It is possible to have followed Pope Francis’ six-day visit to the United States without hearing a word he has spoken by simply watching his face.
In the halls of Congress, on the lawn of the White House, before Manhattan’s rich and famous, this pope was polite but restrained — if not quite checking his watch, he was clearly putting in his time. But at lunch with those living on the streets of Washington, D.C., or joking with the children of immigrants in Harlem, his whole body lit up, animated and engaged.
So it was again this morning at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on the outskirts of Philadelphia, where the pontiff spoke and met with roughly 75 inmates and their families. Slowly, he moved around the room, stopping to clasp hands and look into each face, murmuring a blessing to those who requested one and wrapping his arms around those who rose for an embrace. The specially selected inmates also received a rosary blessed by the pope, a treasure that left some practically giddy.
“I’m never taking this off!” exclaimed Ruth Colon afterward of the rosary around her neck. The 35-year-old is serving a year sentence for a parole violation and, like many, was a bit stunned by the papal visit. “I never expected to ever meet the pope!” said Colon. “Of course,” she continued, looking around, “I never expected to be here.”
Colon and the other inmates are part of a criminal justice system that currently incarcerates some 2.2 million individuals in the United States, a 500 percent increase over the past three decades. Criminal justice reform has attracted bipartisan support recently, and advocates wondered if Pope Francis would use his prison appearance to urge the U.S. to act on reform.
He did not — at least, not explicitly. In his address to Congress, the pope did condemn capital punishment and urge global abolition of the practice under all circumstances, a small but significant change in Catholic doctrine. But he did not, as he has elsewhere, get into the issues of life sentences, solitary confinement or other controversial aspects of the prison and justice systems, despite the fact that two executions are scheduled to take place this coming week in Georgia and Oklahoma.
Those who expected specific policy prescriptions or endorsements, however, have not been paying attention to how this pope operates. His aim on this trip was both simpler and more radical, as befits a church that thinks in terms of decades and centuries instead of congressional sessions.
Pope Francis blesses an inmate at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia in September. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Pope Francis’ project is no more and no less than getting each of us to change how we view each other. “Any society, any family, which cannot share or take seriously the pain of its children, and views that pain as something normal or to be expected,” said Francis, “is a society ‘condemned’ to remain a hostage to itself, prey to the very things which cause that pain.”
Put another way, a necessary precondition for a society that locks people away and forgets about them is a comfort with sorting individuals into categories and determining that some are not worth saving. To this idea, Francis offered a stern, unambiguous rebuke: “Jesus … comes to save us from the lie that says no one can change,” he said, before repeating, “the lie that says no one can change.”
In order to change, the pope argues, members of a society need to eliminate all distance between themselves and those they judge. He modeled that several times in his brief remarks Sunday morning, first telling the inmates: “I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own.”
And as he did earlier this summer at a violent and overcrowded prison in Bolivia, the pope humbled himself further. “All of us need to be cleansed,” he said, going off-script to add, “I am first among them.”
When President Obama visited a federal prison this summer, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so, he commented after his tour, “There but for the grace of God.” What Pope Francis says to those behind bars is slightly different. He says not “I could be one of you” but “I am one of you.”
It can be hard for us to see God in the faces of others, as Pope Francis urged members of Congress to do in his address on Thursday. But sometimes it’s even harder to see ourselves in their faces.