Visits to prisoners are one of the works of mercy, the theme of the Jubilee Year. Msgr. Carlos Varzelletti, Bishop of Castanhal in the State of Para, Brazil, describes his experience in thirteen prisons of his diocese.
The Church in Castanhal has recently celebrated its tenth birthday. Many efforts have been made but there is still a long way to go before the basic structures for evangelization can be set up. The process of evangelization is supposed to go hand in hand with human development and so meet the urgent needs of the people living in this part of Brazil. I think we must 'live' mercy, starting from small communities, by putting forgiveness into practice, by supporting the sick and all those who are suffering.
Improving prison conditions is a priority in the Diocese of Castanhal. When I go into a prison I pray: "Lord, help me and the other volunteers to be a living sign of your love for our brothers in these cells, who are the most judged, condemned and excluded, not only by society, but also by us the Christians and our communities".
Eighty percent of convicts in the State of Para, which has eight million inhabitants, are serving their sentences in the 13 prisons located in a place called 'Americano', an area in our diocese of Castanhal.
Prison conditions are shocking. The buildings are composed of multiple pavilions which contain narrow, airless, stinking and dirty cells, each crammed with 15 to 20 people. The lack of space has forced inmates to sleep on floors like tightly packed cards and the only chance to turn over is in sequence at regular times.
Each week, we visit a pavilion and, where it is possible, each single cell. I always carry with me a small image of the Virgin Mary so beloved by our people. When I meet prisoners I experience a moment of grace and I hope it's the same for them. I recognize the living presence of Jesus in them.
The scenes I see in some cells remind me of those from Dante's Inferno - deafening noise, horrible pornography displayed on the walls, left-over food rotting in the hallway, the stink of stagnant water, inmates screaming vulgarities while playing cards and frightening threats from followers of the Pentecostal churches that openly reject our presence.
Every time I am there I have the perception that I have arrived at the lowest rung of human degradation. At the same time I am aware that the Lord wants me to be right there, and it is right there, in the last place where you expect to find Him, where he lets you see Him.
When I am in a prison, I always find some inmates that come close to the bars of the cell door and express their joy at being visited. I look into their eyes and listen to them carefully with my arms extended through the bars to hold their hands. I try to give voice through prayer to the feelings, expectations and demands hidden in their hearts.
I wish I could be more supportive. I feel that visiting prisoners, this work of mercy, is a challenge for me and my diocese. We are going to visit more than 6,000 inmates. I do hope that in addition to the five parishes of our dioceses, which are already committed to visiting a prison each, the other eight parishes will follow them in this work of mercy.
Pope Francis Mission Intention for February
"That opportunities may increase for dialogue and encounter between the Christian faith and the peoples of Asia." Let us Pray.
Early last year Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka where four major religions coexist: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. Unfortunately ethnic and religious differences there have led to bloody conflicts. Meeting with representatives of these religions, the Pope said: "For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war. We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion, and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed."
All people are made in the image and likeness of God. God created everyone for eternal life - to be with God in the heavenly communion of saints. God desires this so much that he sent Jesus to shed his precious blood for the salvation of all. Thus all people are to be shown respect. In his speech, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of "dialogue, which is essential if we are to know, understand, and respect one another." True dialogue requires honesty: "… for such dialogue and encounter to be effective, it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions. Certainly, such dialogue will accentuate how varied our beliefs, traditions and practices are. But if we are honest in presenting our convictions, we will be able to see more clearly what we hold in common. New avenues will be opened for mutual esteem, cooperation, and indeed friendship."
In true dialogue with non-Christians, we Christians need to listen respectfully, find common ground, and then in our turn to share the Gospel, in hopes that the Holy Spirit will open hearts to Jesus. We pray this month that opportunities for such sharing may increase in Asia, where Christians are in the minority.
1 Timothy 2: 1-7 God our saviour wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Pope Francis General Intention for February
"That we may take good care of creation - a gift freely given - cultivating and protecting it for future generations." Let us Pray.
Life is a gift. Our very existence is a gift. We did not create ourselves nor are we chance products of the blind forces of nature. And we are not God.
That may seem obvious, but from the beginning of human history, people have tried to be God. We see that even today in the way human beings use creation in ways that are contrary to God's will. According to Genesis 2: 15, humanity was created to work with God, "to cultivate and care for" the earth. Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical Laudato Si: "Once we lose our humility and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong."
This month we begin Lent, a time of conversion. Let's consider how we can
be humble stewards and not exploiters of creation. As a start, Pope Francis proposes we simply "stop and give thanks to God before and after meals." Doing so "reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need."
Psalm 148 Praise the Lord from the heavens and from the earth!
Institute Intention for February
"That as we conclude the Year of Consecrated Life, we may remain faithful to the grace received and feel the need to renew every day the joy of the gift of ourselves to Christ for the Mission." Lord hear us.
Prayer of the Month
Most High, all-powerful, good Lord God, to you belong praise, glory, honour and all blessing. Be praised, my Lord, for all your creation and especially for our Brother Sun, who brings us the day and the light; he is strong and shines magnificently. O Lord, we think of you when we look at him. Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon, and for the stars which you have set shining and lovely in the heavens. Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Earth, our Mother, who nourishes us and sustains us, bringing forth fruits and vegetables of many kinds and flowers of many colours. . . .
From - the "Canticle of Creation" by St. Francis of Assisi