It is not true that young people have no questions about God. And it is definitely not true of the inmates at the juvenile prison, Casal del Marmo, who have become so important for my life and my faith, for me as a man and as a priest. When you would least expect it, they ask the most difficult questions. “How is it possible to believe in someone who let himself be nailed to a cross?! You are really going to have to explain this to me,” bursts out Bolivar one Sunday morning while I am hearing confessions in the church. In each one of them lives the search for the absolute and the nostalgia for heaven, even if, too many times, they are buried underneath piles of mud and rubble. The rosary that they wear around their neck is often the thread that keeps them attached to hope. The death of a friend or of a relative does not leave them indifferent: they reveal themselves to be capable of relationships of respect and closeness.
One of the traits that amazes me more than any other is the capacity that these young men have to be true. And this brings some of them to ask to receive the sacraments. I have often asked myself what moves them to do so. One response is that, paradoxically, in prison, persons truly encounter each other. The encounter between my freedom and that of the other, which is at times fragile and fleeting, but always full of eternity, is capable of unleashing a force that is strong enough to open them to something greater that is present among us, to light a mysterious spark of truth that moves them to change. In this way, the truest questions spring up in them, those that bring them to desire to know and encounter Jesus. With them, I read the Gospel and, as we read, those pages come alive again in front of my eyes. The parable of the prodigal son and his merciful father is always a big hit with them.
At Casal del Marmo, there are not just Christians. Many of them are Arabs of Muslim tradition, who come from the zone of Maghreb. The majority of them are sensitive to the presence of the mystery in their lives. Almost all of them come to Mass and every now and then one of them wonders about Christianity. A few days ago, after having finished catechism with two Italian inmates, I saw Mohamed, who asked me what book I had in my hand. It was the Gospel. He grabs me, pushes me into his cell, and says to me, “Now you have to explain to me everything that’s written in it.” He wanted to know if Christians really believe that Jesus will return at the end of the world to judge every person. We read together the page that indicates the criterion with which we will be measured: I was in prison and you came to visit me…Every time you did this to any of these little ones, you did it for me. And he exclaimed, in wonder, “He was really in prison?!”
The boys who have committed the graves crimes are most often those who ask the most serious questions about God, about faith, and about their own lives. One them, in jail for homicide, recounted to me that, despite having received absolution in confession, he was not able to support the guilt that weighed on his heart for what he had done.
I remember above all a sixteen-year-old boy, Michele, arrested for homicide. I met him at the beginning of June a couple years ago. I had gone to the prison with the sole purpose of seeing him. He was in isolation, as the other inmates weren’t accepting his presence. As soon as he saw me, he said, “Oh, here comes the Church.” “Yes,” I responded, “I am a priest. I came so I could meet you.” In that moment, I was encountering a young man profoundly shaken up, silent, still, with his eyes fixed on the ground. After a few days, he told me what had happened, down to the details. The thought of what he had done did not let him sleep at night. I suggested to him to offer everything to God, to ask His forgiveness. Later, during the summer, we became friends and he began to trust me.
During the following months, every time that I arrived to the prison, Michele came looking for me, to say hi and to tell me about how he had been doing. On Sunday, he was always present at the Mass. One day he approached me and asked me, “Father, do you think that God can forgive me for what I’ve done?” It is difficult to forget the gaze that he cast upon me in that moment. I responded that God is great, that He saw his heart and that He could forgive him, if he asked for it. “I ask for it every night before I go to sleep,” he replied. Knowing that he wasn’t baptized, I proposed to him a path that would help him to get to know better this God who forgives. “I have nothing else to offer you except that we read the Gospel together.” Now, Michele is in a community where, helped by another priest, he is continuing this path of faith and human growth.
It is not true that young people have no questions about God. However, it is necessary to know how to intercept them and to listen to them, to take them upon oneself, descending with these kids to their most desperate moments in order to rise up again and reach, slowly and not without difficulty, the discovery of hope and of a new possibility for their lives.
Nicolò Ceccolini is the Vice Rector of the House of Formation, and spiritual assistant at the juvenile prison of Casal del Marmo, in Rome. In the photo, a visit to the Institute.