This morning, Pope Francis visited the Centro de Cumplimiento de Menores in Las Garzas de Pacora, a detention centre for young people. Upon his arrival, the pope was welcomed by the Archbishop of Panama and by the Director of the Centre, Emma Alba Tejada.
He celebrated a Penitential Service (Liturgy of the Word) with young detainees: A young resident of the centre gave a personal testimony, which was followed by a Gospel reading and the homily of Pope Francis. He digressed frequently from his prepared text, speaking warmly to those present about the love of God and the possibility of conversion. The pope then heard the confessions of 12 young men. After the Holy Father imparted his final blessing, there was an exchange of gifts, and the pope then greeted 30 young detainees who built the confessionals being used for World Youth Day.
Below is the prepared text of the homily given by Pope Francis to the young people of the detention centre:
“He receives sinners and eats with them”. We just heard this at the beginning of the Gospel reading (Lk 15:2). They are the words muttered by some of the Pharisees and scribes who were greatly upset and scandalized by the way Jesus was acting.
With those words, they tried to discredit and dismiss Jesus in the eyes of everyone. But all they managed to do was point out one of his most ordinary yet distinctive ways of relating to others: “He receives sinners and eats with them”.
Jesus is not afraid to approach those who, for countless reasons, were the object of social hatred, like the publicans – we know that tax collectors grew rich by exploiting their own people and they caused great resentment – or like those who were called sinners because of the gravity of their faults, errors and mistakes. He does this because he knows that in heaven there is more joy for a single converted sinner than for ninety-nine righteous people who do not need conversion (Lk 15:7).
Whereas the Pharisees and the scribes were content to grumble or complain, restricting and blocking any kind of change, conversion and inclusion, Jesus approaches and engages, even putting his reputation at risk. He asks us, as he always does, to lift our eyes to a horizon that can renew our life and our history. Two very different and contradictory approaches. A sterile, fruitless approach – that of murmuring and gossip – and another, one that invites to change and conversion, the approach of the Lord.
The approach of murmuring and gossip
Many people do not tolerate this attitude of Jesus; they don’t like it. First by complaining under their breath and then by shouting, they make known their displeasure, seeking to discredit his way of acting and that of all those who are with him. They do not accept and they reject this option of drawing near to others and giving them another chance. Where people’s lives are concerned, it seems easier to post signs and labels that petrify and stigmatize not only people’s past but also their present and future. Signs that ultimately serve only to divide: these people are good and those are bad; these people are the righteous and those the sinners.
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. 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. It takes the social approach of marginalization, exclusion and confrontation, leading it to say irresponsibly, like Caiaphas: “It is expedient that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (Jn 11:50). Normally the thread is cut at the thinnest part: that of the most vulnerable and defenceless.
How painful it is to see a society concentrate its energies more on complaining and backbiting than on fighting tirelessly to create opportunities and change.
The approach of conversion
The Gospel, on the other hand, is completely characterized by the other approach, which is nothing more or less than that of God’s own heart. The Lord wants to celebrate when he sees his children returning home (Lk 15:11-31). Jesus testified to this by showing to the very end the merciful love of the Father. A love that has no time for complaining, but seeks to break the circle of useless, needless, cold and detached criticism, and faces head-on the complexity of life and of every situation. A love that initiates a process capable of providing ways and means for integration and transformation, healing and forgiveness: a path of salvation. By eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus shatters the mentality that separates, excludes, isolates and falsely separates “the good and the bad”. He does not do this by decree, or simply with good intentions, or with slogans or sentimentality. He does it by creating relationships capable of enabling new processes; investing in and celebrating every possible step forward.
In this way, he also breaks with another form of complaining, one even harder to detect, one that “stifles dreams” because it keeps whispering: “you can’t do it, you can’t do it”. The whisper that haunts those who repent of their sin and acknowledge their mistakes, but don’t think that they can change. It makes them think that those who are born publicans will always die publicans; and that is not true.
Friends, each of us is much more than our labels. That is what Jesus teaches us and asks us to believe. His approach challenges us to ask and seek help when setting out on the path of improvement. There are times when complaining seems to have the upper hand, but don’t believe it, don’t listen to it. Seek out and listen to the voices that encourage you to look ahead, not those that pull you down.
The joy and hope of every Christian – of all of us, and the Pope too – comes from having experienced this approach of God, who looks at us and says, “You are part of my family and I cannot leave you out in the cold; I cannot lose you along the way; I am here at your side”. Here? Yes, here! It is that feeling that you, Luis, described at those time when it seemed that it was all over, yet something said: No! It is not all over, because you have a bigger purpose that lets you see that God our Father is always with us. He gives us people with whom we can walk, people to help us achieve new goals.
So Jesus turns complaining into celebration, and tells us: “Rejoice with me!”
Brothers and sisters: You are part of the family; you have a lot to share with others. Help us to discern how best to live and to accompany one another along the path of change that we, as a family, all need.
A society grows sick when it is unable to celebrate change in its sons and daughters. A community grows sick when it lives off relentless, negative and heartless complaining. But 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. Even though it may feel the frustration of not knowing how to do so, it does not give up, it keeps trying. We all have to help each other to learn, as a community, to find these ways. It is a covenant that we have to encourage one another to keep: you, the young, those responsible for your custody and the authorities of the Centre and the Ministry, and your families, as well as your pastoral assistants. Keep fighting, all of you, to seek and find the paths of integration and transformation. The Lord will bless, sustain and accompany you.
Shortly we will continue with the penitential service, where we will all be able to experience the Lord’s approach, his gaze, which does not look at labels and prison terms, but at his sons and daughters. That is God’s approach, his way of seeing things, which rejects exclusion and gives us the strength to build the covenants needed to help us all to reject complaining: fraternal covenants that enable our lives to be a constant invitation to the joy of salvation.