Würzburg 2023: The word of God is not chained

Marco Gnavi

Marco Gnavi
Marco Gnavi


Before I begin my address, I would like to preface that the question of faith is not necessarily confessional or explicit, and that even if it comes from believers of another religion, it is a good right and has dignity because it basically expresses a request for salvation, paternity and forgiveness.

That we as pastoral workers, whether volunteers or consecrated women and men, in short as Christians, stand by the side of suffering women and men, regardless of their religious identity, expresses a covenant in humanity whose universal openness is inherent in the Gospel. One does not deny it in this way but offers friendship and compassion to all. In the Italian prisons, for example, we help Muslims to celebrate the Aid festival, and in the atmosphere of joy and gratitude we get to know and appreciate each other. Pope Francis' document in Human Fraternity, World Peace and Living together, signed with El Tayyeb, and the meetings in the spirit of Assisi have created a new climate that must also enter the prisons. Moreover, the Gospel, when lived, is also attractive. It is not proselytism. It means living trustingly in the global world, a globalisation "of fraternity and not of hatred, of brotherhood and not of fear."


From the "extreme" prison, the request for liberation

I take the floor to share with you some reflections on the dignity of the religious question in prison. I do this in a circle of people (chaplains, religious, lay people) who dedicate their lives to the service of prisoners. So I try to say something with a lot of humility. The suggestions come from my knowledge of several Italian prisons, several prisons in Africa and finally death row in the USA. Above all, I have the privilege of often entering a prison not far from Rome where "justice collaborators" are imprisoned. These are men and a handful of women who have experienced the hell of criminal systems like the Camorra, the Mafia and the Ndrangheta, from which it is very difficult to escape, and who have brought hell into the lives of others. They have chosen to break away from it and pay a very high price for it. They are sentenced to very long prison terms, many of them to life imprisonment, even though they may receive a reduced sentence. The protection programme uproots their families from the country where they have been living and they share the label of "traitor" with their imprisoned relatives, which puts them all at risk of death. The problems that are acute in many penal institutions are in full effect here. In this prison, the omnipresent power of evil must be countered by what Doris yesterday called "the explosive power of hope". This must be measured against the culture of death and countered by a strong culture of life. And above all, proximity. The culture of death is powerful. It is omnipresent. I was struck by what the Swiss prison chaplain said about assisted suicide ... Baptisms into the Ndrangheta ... Our Sister Muerte in Salvador. There is no free will (libero arbedrio,) without trust, without empathy, without gratuitous covenant. The totally lonely human being is Jesus on the cross. But as long as we are not on the cross, we cannot ask others "from a safe distance" to choose the good just because we believe we are different. To do this, we have to be close to them, very close, so close that we choose with each other, even for my own life.

For example Pasquale - he has put down his weapons and is now afraid of everything. Just the feeling that he is welcome and supported gives him hope for a different life and makes him dream.

Nino's story ...

I believe with you that this is more than what we are already doing. In order to impart it to them, we need to live it with them, beyond the tedious completion of daily necessities. There is no other option than to accept that we are questioning ourselves, starting from the first of the Messianic signs pointed out by Jesus: "set the captives free". Is it possible to free them while they are still in their cells? What are we to free them from? What do they ask for, what call is heard in their silent or spoken prayer?


Liberation begins with a friendly face that does not judge

The "total" institution classifies and dehumanises. Just as in hospitals patients are classified according to disease, so in prisons people are separated or grouped according to offence, length of sentence or criminal proceedings. Everything refers to the past and almost nothing offers a future. The prison, any prison, could be compared to what Marc Augè calls "non-places", i.e. institutions where the individual loses all his or her specific characteristics and lacks personal or collective identity and relationships.

Felice, 41 years old, writes: "Dear Luigia, in November it will be 23 years that I have been in prison and I feel every day what it means to be a ghost that no one sees and pays attention to, but that exists and feels emotions like everyone else ... Some think I am a monster, some think I am my old life, others (he refers to those he "betrayed" to choose collaboration), this new life ...". Felice studied in prison, graduated and started writing poetry because "they make me live in a fantasy world where everything is possible, a world of feelings, of kindness and passion, of tears of joy, of tenderness. I need it. My heart needs it. After a life as a stranger in the world, I want to be a part of it". There is a longing in him and in many others. A longing for a family, for attachments, for innocence and affection. He expresses it in prose: "Brother! I see you in the midst of a crowd of our kind. Trapped souls, held together by pain and dreams. I see you without looking at you. I feel you without touching you. In every part of me lives a grain that belongs to you. In every part of me there is a tear ... I look for you on the roads I have not yet travelled, where everything encourages me and frightens me, where everything is a dream and a nightmare, where everything makes me share in the joy and pain of others, where everything is made up of eyes wide open because you are not aware that you are unique and precious, even if life has hidden it from us; even if the cold and the cries choked in our throats have made us immune to goodness, immune to a tenderness, immune to a tear. Brother, you are precious to me, you are precious to those who only pretend to exist for fear of dying ...".

I, we are challenged! The face of the lost and sought brother can be my face, our face. It is above all the face of Jesus that we can "reveal". For Felice and many others, hope is a basic need, more urgent than hunger and thirst and most denied and degraded. Jesus offered this hope with his gratuitous love to the thief who was crucified with him, asking only: "Remember me, Lord, in your kingdom". He offered it without requiring any prior conversion. Jesus was with him on the cross. With him he entered into the glory of the Father. Gratitude is already a sign that lifts the stigma, that amazes, that revives. Crossing the threshold of this prison (Paliano, near Frosinone in Lazio), I have learned to renounce any kind of judgement and, together with my friends of Sant'Egidio, to meet first of all people, faces, and names that have a great need to receive appreciation, trust, and a friendly glance.


Barriers fall

The world is not divided into those who commit crimes and those who stay away. I think we must always ask ourselves the legitimate question of why they are " inside " and we are " outside ". The answer has to do with a mystery. I, just like you, did not choose which family I was born into. I did not live in an environment where evil and its controlling force took away my freedom of choice when I was young. I had different choices than others. From an eschatological perspective, I know that our brothers can pass me by in the Kingdom of God. Publicans, prostitutes, sinners have known God, his mercy and the joy of forgiveness more than the "self-proclaimed" righteous. They have believed in his saving and mighty power. "My" time spent with them probably does not carry the same weight in judging goodness as those who have received less and are in prison. The "anawim", the poor in spirit, make history, they turn it upside down, more than the learned and intelligent. Being close to these friends is for me, for us, a special opportunity to be saved together. Can the Gospel, of which we are witnesses, break open and turn around destinies? Break down walls? Is this pedagogy or the implementation of the Pauline statement that in Christ there is "neither Gentile nor Jew, slave nor free"? Is this Christian rhetoric or the reality of the Church that could live prophetically and humbly through us as well?


Confronting evil together and restoring freedom of choice

It seems to me that many of them also feel the burden of a "curse" in other types of penal institutions - we must bear in mind that they are also populated by innocent and poor people. They say of themselves with pain: "I am cursed". They resemble the possessed man of Gerasa (Mk 5:1-20). The persistence of the evil one made him live in a tragic state. An inmate of Regina Coeli: "I beg you, Lord my God, I beseech you, cast out of me the demon that drives me to do things I do not want to do". The demon from the Gospel breaks shackles and chains, showing the additional suffering that comes from being bound without being freed from evil. He lived in cemeteries, in places that heralded death and not life, as is the case with many prisoners. The exclusion often takes place outside the prison, and the impurity - the "evil spirit" - manifests itself as distance, judgement, loneliness. In loneliness, one hurts oneself, so much so that one hits oneself with stones. And we see, sometimes helplessly, the decay of life caught in addictions that seem to know no way out. The "demon" of alcohol, drugs and much more ... Yet all these desperate conditions attract Jesus, who crosses the lake and arrives on the pagan shore where all this takes place and the inhabitants accept it with resignation.

It cannot surprise us enough that this possessed man, when he sees Jesus, runs to him and asks in despair: "What do you want from me, Jesus, Son of God?" A profession of faith that no one would have expected. A confession of faith that is at the centre of the struggle of evil against good, uttered by a man who is on his knees while the "legion" - the multitude of bleeding wounds and pains in his life - raises its voice and protests, " Have you come to torment us"?

There is a force of good that liberates. It is strong. It even allows the unclean spirits to leave and go into the herd of swine that is later swallowed up by the sea. Jesus is interested in man, he wants to free him, to give him back his face, his humanity. Even the possessed person or the one who feels as such is created in the image of God. The Gospel now describes him sitting, clothed and healed in spirit and heart. This is the truth of his life. It is the truth of every prisoner. We find it in joy, in gratitude. In contrast, the inhabitants of Gerasa and with them many, even in our days, preferred to believe in evil rather than in the healing power of good. They were even afraid of the healing of the suffering man and with him of Jesus himself ...


Acceptance and the possibility of forgiveness

Catechesis and common prayer, as well as the Eucharistic liturgy, are spaces of consolation and joy, of compassion and healing of their wounds, but also places to interpret the present in the light of the Gospel. These shared moments, the personal relationship, the absence of judgement and the gratuitous trust are a precondition or promise of forgiveness which can then be expressed in sacramental confession. A welcoming community already indicates the possibility of reconciliation.

Forgiveness denied or never offered is a tombstone for the future. There is an inner suffering that must be confronted, accepted and healed. David Mathis, who was sentenced to death in Louisiana in the United States, gave me a painting. A defenceless man, with a chain and a lead ball on his arm, is supported by another man who grasps his shoulders from behind and prevents him from sinking to the ground. The latter has the stigmata of the cross on his hands and feet, he is Jesus himself, while the lead ball represents the condemnation imposed by society without redemption, without reconciliation. Someone who knows David Mathis better than I do wrote a prayer for him and for all prisoners. "Lord, who do not condemn those who are already condemned, who do not shun those who are already shunned, who do not despise those who are already despised, who forgive those who are not forgiven, and who do not inflict pain on those who are already suffering, hear the groaning of the prisoners and free those condemned to death. Be the good friend of those who are deprived of freedom. Soften the hearts of the jailers, reconcile those who have sinned with those who have suffered. You who freed the apostle Peter, cause every man to be but a prisoner of love and forgiveness.

I am grateful to David and to this friend of David, because even if they are not condemned to death, many among the prisoners feel the same drama and have no one to free them, no one to reconcile them. At best, they are offered the remedy of psychology, talks that restore self-esteem. We are in the time of the dominance of the ego, and psychology seems to explain much, but it is grace that brings life, it does not come from us and is greater than us. We ourselves are "graced ones" and therefore we cannot but offer it to those who have been deprived of it or who did not know they could ask for it. The grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation breaks the chain of evil, it is the beginning of resurrection.



The prisoners ask for a family to be rebuilt with them and around them. They ask for dignity. They ask for the Good News, whether they are Christians or non-Christians, whether they belong to a different faith community than us, they all ask for the Good News. They insist that we pray for them. They rejoice when they have the opportunity to pray together, even if they say they are not believers. They look for signs of God's presence. They ask us to pray for the world. Evil is also outside: when I think of our times, of the war in Ukraine and in large parts of the world, of the pandemic, of the storms that shake the present beyond the individual strokes of fate of each person, the reading of the Scriptures, the interpretation (also by lay people) and the singing are light, respite from fears, water that quenches thirst when one feels the drought or dryness of emotions. Evil coming from outside increases restlessness and insecurity. The shut-in feels threatened. The madness of the outside world agitates the minds of the inmates. The "anti-vaccination campaigns" and the resulting growing fear in prisons, perceived as death cages in the face of pandemics, death sentences in faraway countries, everything that increases the perception of death in the world increases fear. Prayer, accompanied by personal relationships and culture, provides an antidote. At certain times, during the main liturgical times, we go, at least in Italy, to bless the cells. And when there are no priests or deacons, lay people go to say a prayer and leave a prayer card. The saints, the images, a passage of Scripture remain in the cell, but they are "visited", they are read, they become a company under the sign of a greater love that accompanies and protects them. We must never despise this thirst for communion and mercy.

I also believe that loneliness is the worst enemy of those who are wounded or have been wounded. The psychological distress in prison is a drama within a drama. This is even more true in cases of self-harm, which can lead to suicide. It is the contagion of despair. In Italy, eighty-four people have taken their own lives in just two months. This is a scourge that we must fight by breaking isolation, offering solidarity and doing all we can to ensure that no one is left to fend for themselves. And when we are unfortunate enough to be confronted with such senseless and terrible deaths, we pray with the other inmates. Sometimes even with the prison officers. To the absurdity of suicide, the Lord responds with an excess of love, of rebellion against death. With an offer of life, his and ours, which must be a sign of mercy. In defeat, we must help everyone to feel that their life is precious, that it is unique, that it is precious.


The Word of God

We have experienced with you the power of the Word of God. Pope Francis has introduced the celebration of the Word of God with deep understanding. He has moved us to love the Bible, to venerate it, to read it. It must be offered to prisoners and shared with them. In a simple way, but no less profound. Everyone can become a "contemporary" of the apostles, the main figures of the First and New Testaments. Everyone can write a new page in the book of Acts with their life. The Feast of the Word, whose date falls on the third Sunday of the season in the cycle, can be an opportunity for the free distribution of the Bible, and the Word is the key to a closer knowledge of the Lord Himself.

From this love, faith can be born or revived. So there are many who "don't know" that they already believe because they long for the friendship of God, but there is no one to explain the essentials to them. One prisoner wrote: "Dear friend, you know that I do not believe in God, but I believe in goodness and humanity. You know that I have read the whole Bible and that I am fascinated by religions, especially Christianity. I am fascinated by men and women like you who have the gift of faith. There is something mysterious, something inward about faith. I can't help but think of the many martyrs who have sacrificed their lives for the faith, and martyr means witness." This imprisoned friend who says he does not believe, says when he is in great trouble: with God's help ...

The good evangelises, the word evangelises and purifies the environment of despair. It makes the environment more human, even for those who belong to other faith communities. Hope is also contagious. Like the multiplication of loaves, the knowledge of the Gospel has a power of its own. You have to let it work and grow.

We no longer live in a time when the transmission of faith took place in the passing from one generation to the next. We need to locate and pass on the essence of the alphabet of the Word of God, starting almost from scratch. It is an invitation to rethink the message in understandable and simple terms. I believe we can also accompany the lives of prisoners with the old gestures of the Church. (I am also thinking of the anointing of the sick, not only with regard to serious illness and near death: it is a balm that gives hope).

In short, the Word of God is not fettered, and we can take up the deep religious and human need of prisoners. And when there is a lack of pastors and priests, we valorise the laity. They are the heralds of the Good News. The Eucharistic bread is accompanied by the bread of the Word. This can be broken and distributed by them all with passion and creativity. We are all connected to each other. There are the permanent deacons, the special ministers at the Eucharistic celebration. We are one people. Finally, we want to bring the world of prisons closer to those who are on the outside: the parishes, the groups. Let everyone visit Jesus at least once in their imprisoned brothers and sisters. In prison we experience a joy and a wonder that is not granted to others. It is the joy of God's love made flesh that speaks of Easter and the Resurrection.


Our privilege

May prison be for us a privileged place of encounter with the deepest roots of our faith. We are experiencing a privilege. For it is clear to us how in the prisoner, whatever his age or condition, whatever the reason for his suffering or the crime committed, Jesus himself is recognised, asking to be visited in his younger brothers and sisters who are prisoners. This man, this woman, is often also the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick. The despair and sense of abandonment recall the cry of Jesus praying on the cross, echoing in his own pain the first words of Psalm 22. The pain of abandonment by God on the mouth and in the soul of the crucified is not unlike the lamentations that rise from the cells. We know that the psalm ends with a confession of faith in the Father and that Jesus dies to re-join Him. And we are asked not to do the "possible" but to believe in the impossible. To do everything so that our imprisoned brothers and sisters may also find faith and hope.

Thank you.