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“Unbelievable,” “goosebumps,” “breathtaking,” “ecstatic,” “once in a life time,” “amazing,” “tears to my eyes”: these were some of the words and phrases inmates used to describe their encounters with Pope Francis at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in northeast Philadelphia Sept. 27.
But it is a good bet that Pope Francis didn’t want to be put on a pedestal, even though inmates and instructors made him a striking chair complete with his papal insignia for the visit.
“I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own,” said Pope Francis to the inmates.
“I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from Him the power of the Resurrection,” he continued.
Before Pope Francis arrived, around 70 inmates were brought into the room, where families, correctional officers, public relations officials and members of the media were anticipating the big moment.
Women inmates from the nearby Riverside Correctional Facility took the front-row seats, with the men behind them in three sections. The focal point of the room seemed to be the 6-foot tall chair made of walnut.
Shawn Hawes, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Prison System, said that inmates chosen for the visit had little or no behavioral issues while in custody, and also demonstrated a faith commitment with attendance to services or classes.
Warden Michelle Farrell instructed everyone to take their seats and noted that the Pope would be arriving early. Before long, bishops and priests entered the room from the side and not long after that and without fanfare, Pope Francis emerged from the front of the room and gave a thumbs up after seeing the chair.
Speaking from a prepared statement, he addressed the inmates in Spanish, with Msgr. Mark Miles, a member of the papal entourage, translating into English. In his message of solidarity as well as Christ’s power to cleanse, the Holy Father did not stray far from the official text of his visit.
“We know in faith that Jesus seeks us out. He wants to heal our wounds, to soothe our feet which hurt from traveling alone, to wash each of us clean of the dust from our journey,” the pope said.
He spoke of Christ’s desire to heal. “He doesn’t ask us where we have been, He doesn’t question us about what we have done,” the pope said. Instead, Christ came to offer healing, hope, and dignity restored so the journey can begin again.
“He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realize that we have a mission, and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion,” said the pontiff.
“Life means ‘getting our feet dirty’ from the dust-filled roads of life and history. All of us need to be cleansed, to be washed,” and in a notable addition to the official text, “all of us — and me in first place.”
As poignant as his message to the room, what will likely be more memorable to the inmates was the personal visit he gave each of them. Inmates, correctional officers and Warden Farrell spoke to The Catholic Sun after the Holy Father’s visit.
Leaving the front of the room and accompanied by Vatican personnel, Pope Francis stopped by every inmate, shaking hands, giving blessings, receiving at least one hug and offering encouraging words. His aides also gave each inmate a rosary and a prayer card of the pope.
“I’m just ecstatic right now, I love it,” said Stacie Sickel who was seated in the front row and had a scapular blessed for one of her friends at Riverside.
She said when the pope approached her, she asked for a blessing.
“He said, ‘I bless you and your children,’” she recalled. “That right there, just brought tears to my eyes, just for him to touch me, period.”
The pope’s message of making new paths and journeys also resonated with her.
Instead of “backtracking and being so depressed and down on yourself, just try to move forward with yourself and your self-esteem [will] get higher,” said Sickel.
Christopher Custer only found out the day before that he would be included with the group of inmates for the papal visit.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Just, I got goosebumps, you know what I mean? Amazing, that’s pretty much all I can sum it up as,” he said.
He said it is something that he will remember the rest of his life.
“I think people just have to be more unified and try to get along together,” said Custer.
Custer said that his Catholic faith had been boosted before the visit, but that this “gave me newer insight, more hope, more positive — a better outlook on life, I think more than anything.”
With regard to the Holy Father’s message to and presence among the inmates, Warden Farrell said, “I think it probably gave them a message of hope and that they’re not forgotten, that everyone is a sinner and that everyone can be forgiven.”
Farrell, who is Catholic, said it was “such a moving experience” that she will never forget, and also noted about the visit that “there was no one who is better than anyone else — that even the pope can come and show his humility and come amongst even the most marginalized of our population.”
Before leaving the room, Pope Francis had at least one more blessing to give. One of his aides noticed that Stephanie Brophy was showing in her six-and-a-half month of pregnancy. Brophy, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s associate director of communications, had wanted to get a “glimpse of him up close.”
The aide motioned for Brophy to come over.
“His eyes lit up and he reached out his hand to shake my hand, so I did and then he put his hand on my belly and blessed it,” Brophy said, speaking of the Holy Father and her unborn child.
And the chair the inmates made for Pope Francis? It’s a gift, so it will be passed on to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia which will ship it to the Vatican with other gifts given to Pope Francis during his historic journey to the City of Brotherly Love.
“The chair is beautiful,” said Pope Francis to the inmates after making his rounds and before leaving them.
“Thank you for the hard work.”