The visits to prisoners are one of the works of mercy, the theme of the Jubilee Year. Monsignor Carlos Varzelletti, Bishop of Castanhal in the State of Para, Brazil, describes his experience of thirteen prisons in his diocese.
Our Church of Castanhal has recently celebrated its tenth birthday. A lot of good work has been done, but there is still a long way to go before the basic structures for evangelisation can be set up. The process of evangelisation is supposed to go hand in hand with human development, and with meeting the many urgent needs of the people. 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. In the last ten years, we have established two reception and rehabilitation centres for those addicted to alcohol and drugs, and a ‘School of Arts’, to give many young people the opportunity to develop their talents – preventing their marginalisation.
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 conditions in the prisons 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 crowded against each other, where the only chance to turn themselves over is in sequence at regular intervals. 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 recognise 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; pornography is displayed on the walls; and food leftovers rot in the stagnant water of the hallways. You can 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 worst 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, that 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 at 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 to the feelings, expectations, and demands hidden in their hearts through prayer. 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 with them…
I wish I could help even more. I feel that visiting prisoners – our work of mercy – is a challenge for me and my diocese, as we have 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 one prison each, the other eight parishes will follow them in this work of mercy.