Recently I had the occasion to spend five weeks working in the juvenile prison of Casal del Marmo. At this prison there has been the presence of priests of the Fraternity for some years now, above all, Fr. Nicolò, vice-rector of the seminary, who collaborates with Father Gaetano, chaplain of the penitentiary institute. To myself and three other seminarians, Nicolò proposed to spend part of our summer painting the cells and the common areas of the prison. A friend of the Fraternity, Marcello, a retired painter, received the honor of directing the project and showing us the tricks of the trade. We worked with two different groups of young detainees, who were always the same guys, so that we could spend as much time as possible with them and favor the flowering of a more personal relationship.
This charitable work was proposed to me, above all, so that I might learn to encounter those who are radically different from me. Essentially, my initial fear was that the distance between myself and the inmates would be too large, like an unscalable wall. I thought back on my own life: a bit bourgeois, growing up without missing anything. What do I have to give or share with those teenagers who all have rather turbulent pasts? What bridge could I possibly build?
That fear, however, quickly vanished. It’s true that the guys are used to reacting instinctively, at times, violently. In the brief period of our work there, three cells were burned, we broke up a fist fight and had to work through other disorderly situations. On account of these episodes at least a half dozen inmates had to pass time in isolation, with obvious ramifications for the progress of our painting. And yet, chatting with them, listening to them talk, it wasn’t long before their external attitudes revealed themselves to be requests for attention; this chest puffing of theirs was really just a mask under which we caught a glimpse of their wounds and the drama of their lives.
One example is Mario, who, from the moment he found out I root for Inter Milan, began to sing, jokingly but obsessively, anthems of insults against my team, and who did this every time I passed by him, for five weeks. There was no ill-will or desire to provoke me. He was only making explicit, without knowing it, a huge need to be looked at, to be considered, and to be recognized in all of his value. It was this same need that brought him, just seconds after finishing his usual jeering, to invite us all to dinner. «After I get out, obviously,» he said, «because you have to taste the gypsy food that my grandma makes». It made me reflect on the all the times in which I too, under other aspects, seek to be recognized in the eyes of others.
Staying with them was often like being in front of a mirror. Of course, their stories are much more dramatic, and their traumas are much more profound: when I was fourteen years old I did not have to cross the Mediterranean on a life boat, like Giulio. And my father did not teach me to deal drugs as a kid, like the father of Andrea. I don’t share that past, yet I find in myself the same instinctivity, the same need to defend myself with masks, the same attention seeking. I realized that we have identical hearts, equally fragile and equally beggarly of a faithful love that might heal our insecurities. I have heard this truth a thousand times in the Movement, but never before as at Casal del Marmo have I experienced it in such a concrete way. In this way, I discovered the bridge that I had despaired of before going: can you really be afraid of encountering someone who is made exactly as you are?
A pause from work in the juvenile prison of Rome.