On the first full day of his visit to Chile, Pope Francis spent time with inmates at San Joaquín women’s prison in Santiago.
It is Chile’s largest female penitentiary and hosts some 650 inmates, most of whom have convictions for drug trafficking.
The majority of women in San Joaquín prison are mothers. The children can live with them inside the jail until they are two years old and after that they can come for weekly visits.
The Pope met with around five hundred prisoners, together with the chaplains and a religious sister in charge of pastoral care for the inmates.
Please find below the full text of his greetings to the women:
Dear Sisters and Brothers:
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to visit you. For me it is important to share this time with you and draw closer to our many brothers and sisters presently deprived of their freedom. Thank you, Sister Nelly, for your kind words and especially for testifying that life always triumphs over death. Thank you, Janeth, for coming forward and sharing your hurt with all of us, and for your courageous request for forgiveness. How much we all have to learn from your act of courage and humility! I quote your words: “We ask forgiveness from all those whom we have harmed by our misdeeds”. I thank you for reminding us that without this attitude we lose our humanity. We forget that we did wrong and that every day is an invitation to start over.
I also think of the words of Jesus: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone” (Jn 8:7). Jesus asks us to leave behind the simplistic way of thinking that divides reality into good and bad, and to enter into that other mindset that recognizes our weaknesses, limitations and even sins, and thus helps us to keep moving forward.
As I came in, two mothers met me with their children and some flowers. They were the ones who welcomed me, and their welcome can nicely be expressed in three words: mother, children and flowers.
Mother. Many of you are mothers and you know what it means to bring a new life into the world. You were able to “take upon yourself” a new life and bring it to birth. Motherhood is not, and never will be a problem. It is a gift, and one of the most wonderful gifts you can ever have. Today you face a very real challenge: you also have to care for that life. You are asked to care for the future. To make it grow and to help it to develop. Not just for yourselves, but for your children and for society as a whole. As women, you have an incredible ability to adapt to new circumstances and move forward. Today I appeal to that ability to bring forth the future that is alive in each one of you. That ability enables you to resist everything that might rob you of your identity and end up by killing your hope.
Janeth was right: losing our freedom does not mean losing our dreams and hopes. Losing our freedom is not the same thing as losing our dignity. That is why we need to reject all those petty clichés that tell us we can’t change, that it’s not worth trying, that nothing will make a difference. No, dear sisters! Some things do make a difference! All those efforts we make to build for a better future – even if often it seems they just go down the drain – all of them will surely bear fruit and be rewarded.
The second word is children. Children are our strength, our future, our incentive. They are a living reminder that life has to be lived for the future, not remain in the past. Today your freedom has been taken away, but that is not the last word. Not at all! Keep looking forward. Look ahead to the day when you will return to life in society. For this reason, I applaud and encourage every effort to spread and support projects like Espacio Mandela and the Fundación Mujer levántate.
The name of that Foundation makes me think of the Gospel passage where people laughed at Jesus because he said that the daughter of the synagogue leader wasn’t dead, but only asleep. Jesus showed us how to meet that kind of derision: he went straight to her room, took her by the hand and said: “Little girl, get up!” (Mk 5:41). Projects like those I mentioned are a living sign of Jesus, who enters into each of our homes, pays no attention to ridicule and never gives up. He takes us by the hand and tells us to “get up”. It is wonderful that so many Christians and people of good will follow in the footsteps of Jesus and decide to come here to be a sign of that outstretched hand us that lifts us up.
We all know that, sadly, a jail sentence is very often simply a punishment, offering no opportunities for personal growth. This is not good. On the contrary, those initiatives that offer job training and help to rebuild relationships are signs of hope for the future. Let us help them to grow. Public order must not be reduced to stronger security measures, but should be concerned primarily with preventive measures, such as work, education, and greater community involvement.
Lastly, flowers. I believe that life itself “flowers” and shows us all its beauty when we work together, hand in hand, to make things better, to open up new possibilities. With this in mind, I greet all the pastoral workers, volunteers and professional personnel, especially the police officers and their families. I pray for you. Your work is sensitive and complex, and so I ask the authorities to try to provide you too with the conditions needed to carry out your work with dignity. A dignity that engenders dignity.
Mary is our Mother and we are her children, you are her daughters. We ask her to intercede for you, for each of your children and your dear ones. May she cover you with her mantle. And I ask you, please, not to forget to pray for me.
The flowers you have given me, I will bring to the Blessed Virgin in the name of all of you. Once again, many thanks!