PHILADELPHIA (RNS) — It was a meeting of preachers and prisoners, of tattoos and crosses, of caregivers and criminals.
Pope Francis visited with 95 inmates at Curran-Cromhold Correctional Facility here, bringing with him a message of redemption, hope and encouragement.
“I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own,” he said, peering over his glasses at the men and women — all inmates — seated before him.
“I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of the resurrection.”
During much of the speech, the pope sat in a wooden chair made by him for some of the inmates in the prison workshop. He stood before it as he spoke as well, as though he wanted to get even closer to the men and women in prison-issue blue clothes. Bishops and archbishops, clad in black with red trim, sat to the pope’s right, sometimes looking at him, sometimes watching the faces of the prisoners.
The pope’s message was built around the New Testament story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. In Christian practice, washing the feet of another is an act of humility and compassion.
He told them it is not possible to walk the roads of life without getting one’s feet dirty.
“All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from,” he told them. Then going off-script — as he did with great effect at Independence Hall and at the Festivals of Families, he added, “I am first among them.”
The prisoners seemed visibly moved. Some bowed their heads, one or two had eyes that welled.
Before stepping down to shake the hands of many, one by one, he gave them a last message of hope:
They can be saved from “the lie that says no one can change.”