PANAMA CITY — Speaking at a juvenile detention center Friday, Pope Francis said that people mean more than the labels society uses to define them, and that dividing people into good and bad only serves to create invisible walls.
“Where people’s lives are concerned, it seems easier to post signs and labels that petrify and stigmatize not only people’s past, but also their present and future,” the pope told a group of young inmates in the Las Garzas of Pacora detention center.
Such labels, the pope said, are “signs that ultimately serve only to divide: these people are good and those are bad; these people are the righteous and those the sinners.”
Dividing with such easy categories, the pontiff said, “spoils everything, because it erects an invisible wall that makes people think that, if we marginalize, separate and isolate others, all our problems will magically be solved.”
This division, he said, is fostered by a “culture of adjectives. We love giving adjectives to people,” he said. Those who do so “don’t care about people, only about finding a label, an adjective, to disqualify people.”
When a society allows for this division, he continued, simply complaining instead of looking for actual solutions, it becomes part of a “vicious circle” of blame and condemnation.
“Normally the thread is cut at the thinnest part: that of the most vulnerable and defenseless,” Francis said. “How painful it is to see a society concentrate its energies more on complaining and backbiting than on fighting tirelessly to create opportunities and change.”
During his remarks, the pope also said that what he was saying is rooted in the Gospel, that Jesus received sinners and ate with them, because as the Book of Luke says, in Heaven there’s more joy for a single converted sinner than for ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need conversion.
Before his remarks, which took place during a penitential liturgy which he led in the prison, Francis heard the confession of five young inmates, at least one of them a murderer. The confessionals used by Francis and other members of his entourage to hear confessions were built by the inmates, who have various workshops in the jail in an attempt to give them the chance to reintegrate into society when they leave.
Though some of the inmates are now young adults, many entered Las Garzas at the age of 15.
Popes hearing confessions have long been a part of World Youth Day, the Vatican-sponsored gathering he’s participating in in Panama. However, this was the first time that this moment took place at a prison.
Before making his way to Pacora, some 20 miles from Panama City, the pope met for ten minutes with 450 young pilgrims from Cuba at the Colegio Esclavas, located near the Apostolic Nunciature in Panama, the residence of the papal representative where the pope’s been staying.
Though it wasn’t originally on the schedule, Francis decided to go through the streets of Pecora in the popemobile, greeting the crowd that had gathered, with an evident smile on his face whenever people screamed at him and slowing down to bless babies. A Vatican statement said the pontiff chose to do so as a “sign of closeness to the people who live in this periphery.”
According to local TV, the young inmates had been watching the pope’s arrival and “couldn’t contain their excitement.”
The center is considered a “model one,” with many initiatives to help the inmates have a second chance. Once here, Francis met with 180 young inmates, who prepared for his visit materially and spiritually with the help of seminarians.
The Las Garzas de Pacora Juvenile Detention Center was established in 2012 and has a capacity of 192 inmates. The center offers young people a comprehensive reintegration program through aspects such as education, family and health. The inmates are required to participate in seminars organized by the National Institute for Vocational Training and Training for Human Development (INADEH).
In addition, a team of social workers, psychologists, and teachers cooperate to provide a rehabilitation system under the supervision of UNICEF and the institution has also received financial support from the European Union.
Part of his remarks were a response to Luis Oscar Martínez, a 21-year old inmate who, in his own words, “tripped and committed a crime,” not imagining how serious the consequences would be, including losing his family, his studies and ending up in a jail.
“My life has been difficult: when I was one year old, my father abandoned my mother,” Martínez said. “She followed the battle of life, not only with me, but with my sister and my brother.”
“When I was growing up, I felt that something was missing, that there was a void inside me. Today I know that that something that was missing was the voice of a dad who guided me with love,” he said. “In 2015 God touched my heart and I made the decision to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior. That day I had a dad again.”
Today, he said, he dreams of being an international chef.
“The joy and hope of every Christian – of all of us, and the pope too – comes from having experienced this approach of God, who looks at us and says, ‘You are part of my family and I cannot leave you out in the cold; I cannot lose you along the way; I am here at your side’,” Francis said. “Here? Yes, here! It is that feeling that you, Luis, described at those times when it seemed that it was all over, yet something said: No! It is not all over, because you have a bigger purpose that lets you see that God our Father is always with us.”
God, the pontiff said, never leaves one alone and turns complaining into celebration.
“Brothers and sisters: You are part of the family; you have a lot to share with others,” he said. “Help us to discern how best to live and to accompany one another along the path of change that we, as a family, all need.”
Throughout his remarks, the pope mostly followed his prepared text, often adding comments, like saying that even though one might feel like they don’t have a horizon, everyone does: “Open your window, the window of your heart, of love, and you will find it.”
At the beginning, talking about sinners and those who believe they’re better than others, Francis said that everyone is a sinner, and those who feel like they aren’t, “should know that Jesus will not receive you, you’re missing out on the best.”
He also told the inmates that God will never “kick you out,” and will go looking for those who are lost.