The 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.
Our Church of 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 the evangelization can be set up. The process of evangelization is supposed to go hand in hand with human development and with the work towards meeting the many urgent needs in this reality. I think we must ‘live’ mercy, starting from a small community, by putting forgiveness into practice, by supporting the sick and all those who are suffering.
During this short time we have established two reception and rehabilitation centres for the alcohol and drug addicted, along with a ‘School of Arts’ to give many young people the opportunity to develop their talents and to prevent their marginalization.
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.
The prison conditions are shocking. The buildings are composed of multiple pavilions which contain narrow, airless, stinking and dirty cells, each crammed with 15/20 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: you can hear two or three tv sets at full blast, horrible pornography is displayed on the walls, and the food remains which are left in the hallway rot in the stagnant water. You can also hear some inmates screaming vulgarities while they are playing cards, along with the unkind words pronounced by the followers of the Pentecostal churches that openly reject our presence. Every time I am there I have the perception that I have seen 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 of 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.
Many times, when I announce the Father’s mercy and help them to ask for forgiveness for their sins, and I see their faces wet with tears, I am about to cry myself with them …
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. (F.S.)