Being the chaplain for a prison like Casal del Marmo (the juvenile prison of Rome) means being at the center of various relations which move from the director to the commanding officers, from the educators to the security guards, from those who work in the prison to the prisoners. That said, I have a preference for the relationship with the prisoners and spend the majority of my time with them. Something that is always more evident to me is that the greatest suffering for those in prison is not so much their being deprived of freedom, but their experience of total powerlessness towards those they care about outside. For this reason, accompanying these kids, when it is possible, means getting to know their families. In most cases this implies impacting a reality that is disjointed, nonexistent. I enter in contact with the families because the kids ask me to call one of their parents or their girlfriend, to tell them that they are doing well, to schedule a time for them to come meet them. Sometimes, when they receive permission from the judge, they invite me to go home with them for a few hours, it has also happened that I was able to bring them to our house, in the Magliana neighborhood.
The lives of these kids is teaching me how a difficult phase in their growth or in their imprisonment can become occasions for renewing the fundamental relationships that have been torn away from them for a long time. Especially with the family. There was an episode that made me reflect, even if it was an extreme case. Marco is one of the first kids I met at Casal del Marmo when he was still young. When he was three he lost his mother to overdose, his father was already in prison condemned to 14 years. He was raised by his grandma. When he was 10 years old he started spending more time with his friends then with his family. The streets educated him. When he was 14 he entered into a bad group and got arrested. A few months ago, he told me about his father. During the rare moments they were able to spend together, when he looked for help in facing a problem, his dad would simply put money into his hands and tell him to get lost. This happen again and again… “At that point” Marco continued, “I started hitting the drugs because “they”, unlike my father, were always there, close by, ready to respond to my questions”.
This episode helped me to understand the meaning of my presence with these kids. One tends to think about who knows what initiative or program that should be implemented. In reality, the decisive question is being there, being present. I am called to stay near them, to welcome their questions and their stories, to offer responses, when it is possible, or at least a space for them to confront with someone. By staying with them, a trust is born, and it allows me to reach them with a proposal. This is also the first and fundamental service towards the families: to educate the parents to be a loving presence that knows how to welcome, to listen, to accompany.
A presence that is gratuitous, without the preoccupation of immediate results. Gods does not follow a logic of success. He wastes time with us, with me. It is necessary to waste the time that he gives us with these kids. “I responded to your letter after much time because you wasted time for me, you took a seat, you wrote me and you stayed close to me” one of the kids wrote me. Only when these kids are offered gratuitously a friendship that is authoritative they are able to discover that they do not exist by chance but because they are part of a bigger plan that is good, that has a great task for them. That reality and their everyday life is positive, despite everything.
“There is no hope for me”: how many times have I heard this phrase repeated by kids who are 15 or 16 years old! This resignation, however, is one of the elements that has helped me to understand that I need to stay close. Hope: is one of the words I learned in prison. Something their parents also need to be helped to learn. Sometimes it is the case, usually with the normal families, that their child’s going to prison caused a shattering of relationships, like the effects of an atomic bomb. Accompanying the families means being close during a difficult moment, to help them to experience the closeness of God who has not abandoned anyone. To remind them that they are not alone in their pain. Educating to hope means helping the parents to stay in front of the mystery that their children represent. Sometimes, it is a violent mystery. I read something a father wrote, commenting the acts his son committed, he said : “What he did was horrible. I am desperate, but I also realize that in the disaster, the only thing to do is remain close to him”. For me, this means sustaining the hope of this father who is immersed in pain. Expectation, patients, faithfulness: time is not in our hands.
In the photo, Nicolò Ceccolini, chaplain of the juvenile prison of Casal del Marmo, in Rome, during a celebration at the prison.