Pope Francis' Holy Thursday Mass at a prison in Rome was more than just another event for the inmates who participated — it was a sign that while invisible to the world outside, they had not been forgotten.
“Yesterday is a moment that I think is going to resonate through the prison for at least the whole next entire year. I think it's a moment that touched every single guard and every single prisoner who was there,” seminarian Alex Nevitt told CNA March 30.
A seminarian in his third year of theology studying at the Pontifical North American College, Nevitt does prison ministry at Rome's Regina Coeli prison, where Pope Francis celebrated the Mass of the Lord's Supper for Holy Thursday.
The pope washed the feet of 12 inmates and visited the infirmary, as well as “Section VIII” of the facility, where prisoners who have committed serious crimes or who have certain mental illness live.
After the pope's Mass, which commemorated the night Jesus himself was arrested, Nevitt said many of the inmates were moved, because “this is their lived experience that they know.”
“These are men that are easily forgotten,” he said, noting that at one point a representative from the prison spoke to the pope and thanked him “for making sure we're not forgotten.”
“Sometimes it's very easy to forget those who are in prison because we don't see them,” Nevitt said, explaining that as seminarians, “it's a privilege” to serve the inmates because it helps them to better understand “where the fringes of society are.”
Nevitt, who is from the Diocese of Patterson, NJ, has been working in the prison apostolate for two and a half years. He is in charge of the other eight seminarians who are involved in the ministry, five of whom are currently working inside the prison, and three of whom will start in September when they finish training.
As part of their ministry, the seminarians lead bible studies and catechesis. They work most directly with English-speaking inmates, the majority of whom are migrants from Africa. Since the prison does not provide a list of English-speakers, the seminarians will often walk around looking for people.
The people they work with, Nevitt said, are there for a variety of reasons - anything from illegal immigration to petty street crimes, such as selling merchandise like toys or purses on the street illegally.
Although there are not many life sentences, they actual time a person has to spend in prison is not well-defined, Nevitt said, explaining that some people are from Europe or have gained Italian citizenship legally, but have no family, making it harder to access bail or be released without a support system.
“You hear some backstories of prisoners who don't want to write back home because they're ashamed of being in prison,” he said. “So I think the pope's message of forgiveness probably spoke very much to those types of prisoners, to not be ashamed, and they can be forgiven and move forward.”
A total of three popes have visited Regina Coeli, the most recent being St. John Paul II in 2000. Pope Francis' visit meant a lot, Nevitt said.
When people heard that the pope was coming, they “were extremely excited...Regardless of whatever religion they were from, [they] were excited that the pope was coming, so there was a huge amount of energy in the prison for it.”
During the Mass, the pope washed the feet of 12 prisoners from different religions - including Catholics, Muslims, an Orthodox Christian and a Buddhist. The inmates were from various countries, including the Philippines, Nigeria, Colombia, Sierra Leone, Morocco, Moldova, and Italy.
Nevitt said they work with a many non-Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, in their bible studies. At one point they had prepared a man for baptism, and after being transferred to another prison, he came into the Catholic Church.
Another of these non-Catholics is a Nigerian man named Oladipupo, who has been in their bible study for two years and whose feet the pope washed on Holy Thursday.
Oladipupo is a Pentecostal Christian, but has come to the bible study regularly, and even wrote a letter to Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Liturgy and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after reading Sarah's recent book “God or Nothing.” And he got a response back.
“We're hoping that Oladipupo will soon be called to the Catholic faith once he's ready for it,” Nevitt said, explaining that after yesterday's liturgy, he spoke to Oladipupo, who was amazed to see “the humanity of the pope, to see this man who is the leader of the Catholic Church in such a human way.”
Similarly, Nevitt said he also spoke with a Muslim man after the Holy Thursday Mass, though he didn't know the man was a Muslim at the time. The man had been so moved by the liturgy that he had wanted to receive communion, and is now going to start coming to the bible study led by the seminarians.
Many people were moved by the pope's homily Mass, Nevitt said, during which Francis emphasized forgiveness, condemned the death penalty, and told prisoners that Jesus would never abandon them, but would “take a chance” on them.
“Throughout the whole homily everyone was quite captivated at every word the pope was saying, and you could see even from a couple of the guards who were standing around me, there were a lot of head nods,” Nevitt said.
The space itself was very intimate, he said, noting that the rotunda where the Mass took place was small and only a limited number of guards and prisoners were able to sit inside the area, while the rest watched from different wings.
“There were certain moments, especially when the pope was kneeling down to wash the prisoners' feet, you could see people crying,” Nevitt said. “There was a very humanness to seeing the pope kneeling down at his age, sometimes he would have difficulty...getting back up, and people [were] just crying at his example of humble leadership.”