It is said that prison is a place that never sleeps. Large keys open and close heavy gates that slam behind them; rap music and Neapolitan neo-melodic songs fill the air with their lamenting tones, sweet and irritable; there is the uproar as the boys and girls get excited over a victory in foosball or bicker among themselves about a prank gone wrong; stray glances in search of other glances… Shouted words, imposing and commanding, words almost thrown out in the hope that they will be picked up by someone. All words, however, that in one way or another are pregnant with life. And for me, a priest, what word that says more than any other about Life, about who I am, who these boys are and who God is, if not the one He has given us?
I have been present at the juvenile prison of Casal del Marmo for more than ten years, trying to be close to the minors and young adults who arrive already in pain, tried and defeated by life, with a distrust of themselves and others to the nth degree. How is it possible to truly meet them? How can I reach their hearts? How can I learn how to rejoice in the simple fact that each of us is unique? These are questions that always accompany me every time I walk through those gates. And the answer has always been slowly suggested to me by that Word of life, so ancient but always new, which has become a human face.
Spending time with the youth in the prison, I discover how much the Gospel takes on vitality in me and around me, experiencing all its concreteness. There are passages that cling to you and that you can no longer forget, which describe what I am and what I am called to be: “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me”.
From the Gospel I learn that love is not a feeling, but a decision. And the kids remind me of this every day: it is necessary to decide many times to be used, with the hope of a new and more authentic and profound way of sharing life might begin; to decide to accept and respect the time that is necessary for the heart and the freedom of a child to yield. It is a dizzying position. It is necessary to accept death so that life may be reborn, to let oneself be wounded in order to heal other wounds. I always think of Jesus in front of that young man’s request to be happy. After staring at him, he loved him and told him to leave everything and follow him. But that young man preferred to do something else and went away, sad. Who knows what pain Jesus must have felt in his heart. Surely his eyes must have shed a few tears, as my own when I think of some of them. It is necessary to decide to believe in each one, almost with an uncontrolled confidence, already knowing very probably that you will be betrayed. Decide to be that father who helplessly lets his son go, knowing full well what he will end up doing, but who has never given up waiting for him and entrusting him.
Prison time should be a period of a generous sowing, of positive relationships that remain and can be rediscovered in the course of life, of a Word that does not need many words to affirm itself. It speaks through a face, a hug, a smile, through gestures and concrete facts. Contrary to what reigns in prison, it is a Word that is gentle and strong at the same time. It is not in a hurry to be immediately respected, but knows how to wait for the right moment; it does not push to open a passage in the hearts of the young people, but is capable of warming them up; it does not need to shout to be heard, but proposes itself so that its language, love, is understood by all.
That seed which, in summer or in winter, in sunshine or in rain, grows and no one knows how, fills me with infinite hope. Slowly, the Gospel changes my gaze on the reality and life of these kids. I have learned that it is necessary to see the future tree already in the small seed. If we stop at the present state of a kid, no one will ever change. If, on the other hand, we are able to glimpse in him all the good that he is and that he can become, then something can really happen. And that Word, which in the din of the prison seems to be sleeping, in reality, never sleeps.
In the photo, a moment of Fr. Nicolò’s visit to the juvenile prison.