Visit to Regina Cœli prison
If you want to have a spiritual experience, you don’t have to go on a week of silent prayer in a secluded place, or to engage in a heroic act of Christian charity. Everyday life is full of small instances that the Lord puts before our eyes to allow us meet Him. Sometimes they may look trivial, but they are not. Where do we concretely encounter Jesus? We encounter him In the ‘little ones’, those who nobody sees, those who are judged for being poor or sinners. Those whom somehow, we fear, because by looking at them in the eyes, we basically see our very own smallness and fragility.
Last April, I was able to visit the Regina Cœli Prison in Rome, together with the Scout group AGESCI (Roma 9) of which I am the Ecclesiastical Assistant. The men’s prison welcomes all kinds of prisoners awaiting trial, such as thieves, murderers, and drug dealers. There, we celebrated Mass together with the prisoners in the circular space bordered by the cell corridors. The cells, spread over several floors, are protected by security fences and armed guards, a scene typical of a Hollywood film. John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II had celebrated the Eucharist there. Prisoners can attend the Mass standing up and then must immediately return to their cells. It is one of the few ‘humane’ moments that they have, and various volunteers come every Sunday to try to talk to the prisoners.
Being a pre-trial prison, the inmates shouldn’t stay there for long periods, and so, they have very few leisure activities, which means that they have few paths to recovery. Sometimes they have to remain there for several months until they receive the verdict and are then sent on to other prisons. The time they have with chaplains and volunteers are some of the only moments they have with someone who is trying to take care of them.
During Mass there, I was impressed by how well a man from Central America did the reading. He was young (about twenty-two years old) and didn’t appear to be malicious at all. After the Mass I wanted to talk with him, but he went straight back to his cell. However, just before I left, he appeared in the hallway … it was a kairós, a window of opportunity that was being offered to me, I didn’t want to let it go by.
After I greeted him, he answered with a big smile, told me his name and asked me a disconcerting question, “What feelings did you have knowing you would come here? Honestly. ”
I couldn’t lie. I told him how, at first, I had experienced anxiety and fear but that after chatting with various prisoners, I felt reassured. He then told me something of his life history and his desire for a different life.
When listening to his story and talking with the other prisoners, I felt an initial deep fear and a sense of serenity, because these feelings were born out of the awareness that we both shared the same humanity, that there wasn’t much difference between us. At first, I sensed fear when thinking about the evil that these people had committed. But I realised, maybe even before being aware of it, that anyone, myself included, can commit the evil they had committed. On the other hand, I sensed serenity and hope, because I could see that all of us, our wounded humanity, still has a deep desire for goodness and redemption.
This was a full-blown spiritual experience, an encounter with God through one of those ‘little ones’ through which God enjoys making himself present. There, God talked to me and touched my humanity through deep feelings. St Ignatius of Loyola was convinced that God speaks to us through feelings and that’s exactly what I lived in absolute gratuity. In a surprising way.