ROME – Pope Francis hosted a group of prisoners and ex-prisoners at the Vatican over the weekend, listening to their stories and offering words of advice, including telling them to always move forward and to ask for help when they need it.

Speaking to the group during an Oct. 22 meeting at the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse, where he lives, Pope Francis stressed the importance of having the courage to take the first step toward self-improvement, saying, “In life, there must always be a first step.”

In a sense, “every step is like the first, so that you renew and are always going forward. To feel the need to take a step means I still feel like I need to improve my life, to organize it better,” even if someone else is the one who encouraged that first step, he said.

Francis noted that at times, a person might want to take that first step, but they don’t know what to do, and in these cases, he said it’s important to pray, and to ask God for help “because I don’t know how to do it alone.” This, he said, is “a true prayer.”

What is important is to make small steps every day, he said, insisting that, “the small steps and big steps are important in life. We must have the courage to take them, or to at least ask someone to accompany us in taking them, or to teach us how to take them, because sometimes we don’t know what to do, we don’t know on which door to knock.”

In these moments, when the right door or path seems unclear, “the Lord gives us the opportunity and he makes you take the step,” the pope said, adding, “Have trust.”

The group of inmates who met with Pope Francis are all serving or have served their sentences in structures run by the community of Don Benzi in Vasto, in the province of Chieti, and in Termoli near Campobasso.

These structures, created largely due to an overflow in local prisons, house would-be inmates who serve their time and atone for their crimes in the community as an alternative to prison.

This is not the first time the pope has welcomed prisoners to the Vatican.

Over the summer, he hosted a group of a dozen inmates from Rome’s Rebibbia prison. He met with them privately at the Saint Martha house, and following that meeting, the group was offered a private tour of the Vatican museums.

On that occasion, the prisoners brought a basket of bread they had made. The prisoners had started baking it during the COVID-19 lockdown and were hoping to open a store so they could sell the product.

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In a brief video message recorded for those who were unable to attend Friday’s meeting at the Vatican, Pope Francis, whose attention to and support of prisoners has been a hallmark of his papacy, stressed the importance of not getting stuck in life.

Using the image of a parking garage, he said many people “can’t find the path and they are always parked. How many times have we also had a ‘parked’ heart? A heart that says, I need your help to move forward?”

“Other times, we have a heart that’s not parked, but we can’t find the way to the street, so we keep going around and around without leaving,” he said, saying the important thing is to find a way out and to begin walking.

Noting that some might be afraid to take the first step toward change for fear of making a mistake, Francis said “we all make mistakes in life. Everyone. But what’s important is to not stay in the mistake.”

Referring to a motto used by Alpine mountain climbers in northern Italy, Pope Francis said, “in the art of ascending what’s important is not to not fall, but to not stay fallen. We all fall…and sometimes we can’t (get up), so it’s important to extend your hand so someone takes it and helps you.”

“It is undignified when someone looks down on others, it’s undignified. No one has the right to look down on others,” he said, “except when they bend over to help lift them up. The only time when it’s okay to look down on others is when you bend over to lift them up.”

“Many times in life, we ask for a hand to lift ourselves up, so we must also do that for others. With the experience we have, we must do it for others,” he said.

Pope Francis closed his brief remarks thanking the inmates for coming and sharing their stories, voicing hope that their experience in life, however painful, “will be fruitful, that it will be like the seeds that are planted and then grow and grow; that it will be like a good illness, and be contagious, a contagious experience, and that it will be freeing, that it will open the door for many other people who need to live the experience that you all have lived.”

In an interview with Vatican News, the Vatican’s official news platform, Father Benito Giorgetta, who oversees the parish of San Timoteo in Termoli and who accompanied the inmates to their audience at the Vatican, said he requested the meeting due to the pope’s constant attention to prisoners, especially amid prison riots that unfolded during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“More than saying, the pope listened, welcomed, took stock, and fixed his gaze” on each of the inmates present, Giorgetta said, recalling how as they told their stories, “The pope was very attentive and admired what he heard.”

One person, he said, was ashamed to tell their story, but “the pope urged him with a look, with a smile, telling him that he should not be ashamed because hope emerged from the things he said and therefore ‘blessed be the shame.’”

Speaking of the impact the meeting had on the inmates, Giorgetta said there were “very intense moments,” and that the group were like children anxiously waiting for their teacher to come into the room.

“Upon his arrival, the pope put us at ease,” and then the emotions and tears began to flow, he said, adding, “Being next to the pope to take a picture or receive a rosary directly from his hands was truly an intense emotion because the group felt close, they said, to the most important man in the world.”

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