– As Pope Francis prepares to visit Chile next week, the inmates at San Joaquin Women’s Penitentiary Center in Santiago are cleaning, decorating, and preparing for what they believe is a providential papal visit.
The pope will visit the prison on Jan. 16, making a 40-minute stop to meet with the women there.
Ever since the Holy Father’s visit was confirmed, the 620 women incarcerated in the prison – serving sentences for drug trafficking, homicide, robbery or other crimes – have been planning for the encounter.
“People are suffering here, there’s a lot of pain, and that the pope would come and remember us means that God has remembered us,” said inmate Nelly Dominguez. “I believe it’s the providence of God, nothing less.”
Dominguez is serving a 15-year sentence for drug trafficking. “For me, this visit is a before-and-after,” she told ACI Prensa. “Not just in my life but in the lives of all the people here.”
“I am in the process of changing, I’m working on my spiritual life, I intend to change,” she said.
“I think good things are coming for Chile,” she added, describing the Pope’s upcoming visit as “a very great blessing from God.”
Dominguez and the prison’s other inmates are making the paper decorations for the garlands that will decorate the gymnasium where the Pope will meet with the prisoners. They are constructing 7,000 paper doves and 5,000 flowers.
As part of the program, the prison choir will perform a song composed by the inmates. Entitled “Shepherd who smells of the sheep,” the song talks about life in the prison, and the pain and hopes of the women.
Sister Nelly León, a member of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd, works in the prison. She told ACI Prensa that the time of preparation is one of “a lot of joy, festivity and gladness. It’s a second Advent for us.”
The religious sister said her community has created worksheets entitled “From Forgiveness to Peace” to help the prison population spiritually prepare.
The inmates “feel a special connection with Jesus who welcomes them,” León said. She compared the pope traveling through Chile and stopping at the prison with Jesus stopping to encounter people at various moments of his earthly life, such as Martha and Mary, the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman at the well, and Veronica during the Way of the Cross.
León will deliver a welcome speech to Francis. She said the first thing she will do is thank the pontiff for “showing his concern for incarcerated women, because he has shown his concern for the poorest of the poor, and because his presence dignifies the lives of people in prison.”
Staff members at the women’s prison agreed that the encounter will be special for everyone involved.
Petty Officer Alicia Contreras, who participates in the prison ministry, said she thinks the visit with renew the faith of all those who participate.
Chile’s national police chief, Jaime Rojas, expressed his hope that the visit will reinforce the country’s commitment to reintegrating released prisoners back into society through education, work and spiritual support. He added that he hopes the visit will “shake up the consciences of Chileans.”
This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.