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Pope brings World Youth Day to prisoners, hears confessions

Published
Pope Francis listens to the confession of an inmate during a penitential liturgy at the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center for minors, in Panama, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Francis on Friday denounced how society puts up

LAS GARZAS, Panama (AP) — Pope Francis on Friday brought World Youth Day to Panama's juvenile delinquents, celebrating an emotional penitential liturgy inside the country's main youth prison since the inmates couldn't participate in the Catholic Church's big festival of faith outside.

Fulfilling his belief that no one should be separated from God's mercy, Francis also heard the confessions of five inmates at the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center. At least one of them wept uncontrollably afterward.

"There are no words to describe the freedom I feel in this moment," one of the inmates, Luis Oscar Martinez, told the pope at the start of the service inside barbed wire-ringed facility outside Panama City.

It was an emotional highlight of Francis' four-day trip to Panama and a hands-on demonstration of his belief that prisoners deserve the same dignity as everyone else — as well as hope.

In his homily, Francis lamented that society tends to label people good and bad, the righteous and the sinners, when it should instead spend its time creating opportunities for them to change.

"This attitude spoils everything, because it erects an invisible wall that makes people think that, if we marginalize, separate and isolate others, all our problems will magically be solved," he said. "When a society or community allows this, and does nothing more than complain and backbite, it enters into a vicious circle of division, blame and condemnation."

Francis has made a tradition of visiting prisoners during his foreign visits, and has long made prison ministry part of his vocation to minister to the most marginal in society. Just last year, Francis changed church teaching on the death penalty, saying it was inadmissible in all cases.

The change was in keeping with his belief that prisoners can always change and deserve chances for rehabilitation so they can re-enter society after serving their terms.

In a sign of that need for inclusion, the Las Garzas inmates wore the same World Youth Day white T-shirts that tens of thousands of pilgrims are sporting around Panama City.

"A society is fruitful when it is able to generate processes of inclusion and integration, of caring and trying to create opportunities and alternatives that can offer new possibilities to the young, to build a future through community, education and employment," Francis said.

Las Garzas houses more than 150 inmates, some of whom are serving time for murder. The facility, considered a model, opened a year after five minors died in a fire at another prison in Panama City in 2011. Nine people including administrators and police were convicted of homicide or negligence in what was the worst tragedy for the country's youth prison system.

At the start of the service, Martinez told Francis of his remorse in becoming estranged from part of his family after he committed an unspecified crime and was sentenced to serve his term at Las Garzas.

"I caused a profound pain in a dear friend and in myself," Martínez, 21, told the pope. He said he wanted to become a refrigeration mechanic when he got out.

"I hope to give this joy to my mother and be in communion with the part of my family that I lost."

In a tangible sign of forgiveness, prison director Emma Alba announced that 11 young offenders — nine from the Las Garzas facility and another two from Colon province, won conditional supervised freedom after Francis' visit.

Martinez was one of them, she said.

"In this moment, he should be with his family," Alba told reporters hours after the liturgy.

The Vatican spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti, said the visit clearly touched Francis, who wanted to share in the suffering of those who have caused such harm and suffered the consequences.

"I think Pope Francis gave witness to them, and to all of us, that no one is separated from God's mercy, from God's love," Gisotti told reporters.

Francis continued the theme of the suffering church later Friday by presiding over the Way of the Cross procession — a rite of all World Youth Days that re-enacts Christ's suffering and death on the cross.

The prayers recited during the service reflected issues of particular concern for Central America, including the plight of indigenous peoples, women, the unborn and the church's martyrs, with reference to El Salvador's new saint, Oscar Romero. The prayers also touched on pressing political issues of migration and the upheaval in Venezuela, with a prayer to help those Venezuelans who have "lost their homeland."

"We want to be a church that fosters a culture that welcomes, protects, promotes and integrates, that does not stigmatize, much less indulge in the senseless and irresponsible condemnation of every immigrant as a threat to society," Francis told a crowd that organizers estimated had reached 400,000.

___

Winfield reported from Panama City.

Pope Francis listens to the words of an inmate at the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center for minors before the start of a penitential Mass, in Panama, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Francis on Friday denounced how society puts up
Pilgrims fly a their national flags, as well as a banner of El Salvador's Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero, left, while waiting for Pope Francis to arrive for a Stations of the Cross event at Campo Santa Maria la Antigua, along the Cinta Costera of Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Romero was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass in El Salvador during the Central American nation's civil war. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
Pope Francis watches youth hold up a cross during a Stations of the Cross performance at Campo Santa Maria La Antigua on the occasion of World Youth Day in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Residents bide their time as they wait for Pope Francis to ride past in his popemobile en route to Las Garzas de Pacora detention center for minors, in Panama, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Francis will celebrate a special penitential liturgy for Panama's juvenile delinquents inside the Central American country's main youth lockup. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Pilgrims fly a banner of El Salvador's Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero as they wait for Pope Francis to arrive for a Stations of the Cross event at Campo Santa Maria la Antigua, along the Cinta Costera of Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Romero was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass in El Salvador during the Central American nation's civil war. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
People attend a Stations of the Cross event with Pope Francis on Santa Maria la Antigua field along the Cinta Costera in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Pope Francis leads a Stations of the Cross event at Campo Santa Maria La Antigua on the occasion of the World Youth Day in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis watch youths hold up a cross during a Stations of the Cross performance at Campo Santa Maria La Antigua on the occasion of the World Youth Day in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Youths hold up the Spanish message:
A nun uses binoculars to watch a Stations of the Cross event with Pope Francis on Santa Maria la Antigua field along the Cinta Costera in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Residents bide their time as they wait for Pope Francis to ride past in his popemobile en route to Las Garzas de Pacora detention center for minors, in Panama, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Francis will celebrate a special penitential liturgy for Panama's juvenile delinquents inside the Central American country's main youth lockup. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Residents bide their time as they wait for Pope Francis to ride past in his popemobile en route to Las Garzas de Pacora detention center for minors, in Panama, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Francis will celebrate a special penitential liturgy for Panama's juvenile delinquents inside the Central American country's main youth lockup. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A nun uses binoculars to watch a Stations of the Cross event with Pope Francis on Santa Maria la Antigua field along the Cinta Costera in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
A nun uses binoculars to watch a Stations of the Cross event with Pope Francis on Santa Maria la Antigua field along the Cinta Costera in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides his popemobile in Panama City, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Pope Francis has arrived in Panama amid a political crisis in nearby Venezuela, a migration standoff over the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall and tens of thousands of wildly excited young Central Americans welcoming him. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he rides his popemobile in Panama City, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Pope Francis has arrived in Panama amid a political crisis in nearby Venezuela, a migration standoff over the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall and tens of thousands of wildly excited young Central Americans welcoming him. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
Brazilian pilgrims hold a Brazil flag as Pope Francis arrives for a welcoming ceremony to open his participation in the church's World Youth Day festivities in Panama City, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Brazilian pilgrims hold a Brazil flag as Pope Francis arrives for a welcoming ceremony to open his participation in the church's World Youth Day festivities in Panama City, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Pope Francis listens to the words of an inmate at the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center for minors before the start of a penitential Mass, in Panama, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Francis on Friday denounced how society puts up
Pope Francis listens to the words of an inmate at the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center for minors before the start of a penitential Mass, in Panama, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Francis on Friday denounced how society puts up "invisible walls" to marginalize sinners and criminals as he brought World Youth Day to Panama's juvenile delinquents who can't participate in the Catholic Church's big festival of faith. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
People attend a Stations of the Cross event with Pope Francis on Santa Maria la Antigua field along the Cinta Costera in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
People attend a Stations of the Cross event with Pope Francis on Santa Maria la Antigua field along the Cinta Costera in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Pope Francis watch youths hold up a cross during a Stations of the Cross performance at Campo Santa Maria La Antigua on the occasion of the World Youth Day in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis watch youths hold up a cross during a Stations of the Cross performance at Campo Santa Maria La Antigua on the occasion of the World Youth Day in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis watches youth hold up a cross during a Stations of the Cross performance at Campo Santa Maria La Antigua on the occasion of World Youth Day in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis watches youth hold up a cross during a Stations of the Cross performance at Campo Santa Maria La Antigua on the occasion of World Youth Day in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pilgrims fly a banner of El Salvador's Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero as they wait for Pope Francis to arrive for a Stations of the Cross event at Campo Santa Maria la Antigua, along the Cinta Costera of Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Romero was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass in El Salvador during the Central American nation's civil war. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
Pilgrims fly a banner of El Salvador's Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero as they wait for Pope Francis to arrive for a Stations of the Cross event at Campo Santa Maria la Antigua, along the Cinta Costera of Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Romero was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass in El Salvador during the Central American nation's civil war. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
Pope Francis leads a Stations of the Cross event at Campo Santa Maria La Antigua on the occasion of the World Youth Day in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis leads a Stations of the Cross event at Campo Santa Maria La Antigua on the occasion of the World Youth Day in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Youths hold up the Spanish message:
Youths hold up the Spanish message: "I raised a ruckus and I'm here," as they wait for a Stations of the Cross event lead by Pope Francis on Santa Maria la Antigua field along the Cinta Costera in Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Pilgrims fly a their national flags, as well as a banner of El Salvador's Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero, left, while waiting for Pope Francis to arrive for a Stations of the Cross event at Campo Santa Maria la Antigua, along the Cinta Costera of Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Romero was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass in El Salvador during the Central American nation's civil war. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
Pilgrims fly a their national flags, as well as a banner of El Salvador's Saint Oscar Arnulfo Romero, left, while waiting for Pope Francis to arrive for a Stations of the Cross event at Campo Santa Maria la Antigua, along the Cinta Costera of Panama City, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Romero was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass in El Salvador during the Central American nation's civil war. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
Pope Francis listens to the confession of an inmate during a penitential liturgy at the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center for minors, in Panama, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Francis on Friday denounced how society puts up
Pope Francis listens to the confession of an inmate during a penitential liturgy at the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center for minors, in Panama, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. Francis on Friday denounced how society puts up "invisible walls" to marginalize sinners and criminals as he brought World Youth Day to Panama's juvenile delinquents who can't participate in the Catholic Church's big festival of faith. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Civil Defense workers attend a woman as Pope Francis arrives for a welcoming ceremony to open his participation in the church's World Youth Day festivities in Panama City, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Civil Defense workers attend a woman as Pope Francis arrives for a welcoming ceremony to open his participation in the church's World Youth Day festivities in Panama City, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)