I write this editorial the day before the American election. This election has dominated news in the U.S. and around the world. It will leave a legacy of division, unprecedented personal attacks and one of the worst examples of “democracy” at work.
Everyone is relieved the electioneering is over.
I have no foresight into what will happen after the election, but I want to draw attention to an unrelated, but coincidental, church event sponsored by the Vatican.
On Nov. 6 Pope Francis celebrated a jubilee mass for prisioners at the Vatican. Prisoners are often a forgotten group in our society. We don’t accord them much dignity.
Pope Francis wants to offer them hope, and a second chance. Celebrating mass with Pope Francis were 1,000 current and former prisoners from 12 countries. Priests, religious men and women and laypeople who work in prison ministry also took part. The choir was made up of prisoners and volunteers from the Dozza prison in Bologna. Inmates from Italian prisons in Brescia, Busto Arsizio and Palermo were altar servers.
“Hope” was the message of the pope’s homily. “Hope is a gift of God. We must ask for it,” he told the inmates and former inmates. “It is placed deep within each human heart in order to shed light on this life, so often troubled and clouded by so many situations that bring sadness and pain.”
The gift of hope, he added, is especially present “whenever someone makes a mistake” but feels the awakening of repentance and forgiveness through God’s mercy.
Speaking spontaneously on this theme, the pope said, “I want to tell you, every time I visit a prison, I ask myself: ‘Why them and not me?’ We can all make mistakes; all of us. And in one way or another, we have made mistakes.”
Switching gears again, he spoke about those who are not in prison.
Those behind bars are not the only ones who imprisoned, the pope warned. People can also fall into “a certain hypocrisy” that judges current and formerly incarcerated “as wrongdoers for whom prison is the sole answer,” he said.
Hypocrisy can lead Christians to overlook the fact that people can change their lives, he said, but it also makes it impossible for them to see that they, too, are prisoners, locked up within walls of prejudice, ideology and the idols of “a false sense of well-being” and money.
Prisoners and formerly incarcerated people should resist being held back by their past mistakes and instead look toward the future with hope, knowing that God’s mercy and forgiveness is greater, he said.
While the past cannot be rewritten, he said, learning from one’s mistakes “can open a new chapter of your lives.”
Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s St. Vincent De Paul Society’s sponsors a Re-entry Program that gives hope to prisoners re-entering society. While society often looks on prisoners as “mistakes,” said the director of the archdiocese’s Social Action Office, he prefers the term “returning citizens.” It better defines those who were formerly incarcerated rather than the judgmental “ex-con.”
Words and epitaphs we use are important. They form, or change, our perceptions and attitudes. Americans can learn a valuable lesson from the pope.