Roughly 1,000 inmates from around the world gathered in St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday to hear Pope Francis deliver a special Jubilee Mass, in which he urged political leaders to respect the dignity of the incarcerated.
"Sometimes, a certain hypocrisy leads to people considering you only as wrongdoers, for whom prison is the sole answer," Francis told the crowd, made up of prisoners from 12 countries and their families, during his homily. "We don't think about the possibility that people can change their lives. We put little trust in rehabilitation ... into society. But in this way we forget that we are all sinners and often, without being aware of it, we too are prisoners."
Prior to the pope's arrival at the basilica, the crowd heard testimonies from several people who had turned their lives around after being convicted of crimes, and a mother who appeared alongside the man who murdered her son to speak on the power of freeing oneself from hatred.
The event, which was part of the Vatican's Holy Year of Mercy, marked Francis's latest attempt to reach out to the incarcerated. Previously, he has washed the feet of inmates, offered inmates a private tour of Vatican gardens and a blessing from the frescoed splendor of the Sistine Chapel, and visited prisoners around the world, from Brazil, to Bolivia, to Philadelphia, Penn.
The pope's incarceration outreach efforts have been welcomed not only by inmates, but by prison reform advocates who hope they can raise awareness of the shortcomings of prison systems around the world.
"It's really going to bring a level of humanity to the prison world and show that prisoners are people and deserve to be recognized," Ann Schwartzman, the policy and program director for the prison advocacy group Pennsylvania Prison Society, told Prison Legal News prior to the pope's Philadelphia visit last year.
Speaking on Sunday, Francis appealed to political leaders "of each country" to improve prison conditions, implement policies that enable offenders to return to society, and offer clemency whenever possible.
"At times, we are locked up within our own prejudices or enslaved to the idols of a false sense of wellbeing," he said. "At times we get stuck in our own ideologies or absolutize the laws of the market even as they crush other people. At such times, we imprison ourselves behind the walls of individualism and self-sufficiency, deprived of the truth that sets us free."
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.