“Priest, you have a vice: making other people happy”. With these words, Daniel says goodbye to me, hugging me at the end of a very special (and very long) day. He is one of those who has not forgiven life for all that he has been through. He is always angry and bitter with the whole world.
It’s only seven in the morning, but Daniel and the other boys have been on their feet since five. It’s Wednesday, December 2nd. Together with David and Francesco, I accompanied six boys detained at the Casal del Marmo Juvenile Prison to a Papal Audience. They had been asking for this for a long time. We made a list of their names and proposed them to the Surveillance Judge, who then granted them a special permission: a day “free”, from seven in the morning until four in the afternoon.
The previous day I wanted to meet with them to explain what we would do together the following day. I told them that it had not been easy to get the permission, especially because it was to be an outing without security guards. Furthermore, when the prison security got a hold of the news, some of them had looked at me a bit bewildered and sarcastically said: “But do you actually trust these boys enough to take them out alone?” Somewhat unconsciously I had replied: “I’m not afraid to give them my full trust.” I recounted this episode to the boys, and before I could say anything else, the boys themselves came to shake my hand and assured me that there would be no problems. My trust was amply rewarded.
The first stop: Saint Peter’s Square, where a wholesome breakfast awaited us. Seated together at a cafe table, each of them wrote a short note to give to the Pope. Shortly after, we met up with Fr. Gaetano Greco, the chaplain at the Juvenile Prison for 35 years, who was also accompanying ten or so boys from his recovery community.
We entered the square and, after several check points, there we were on the steps of St. Peter’s. They all looked around: some curiously watched and listened to the dances and songs; others, there for their first time, looked up at the big statues of Jesus and the Apostles that stand out on the facade of the Basilica; still others took advantage to call home (with my cell!). When the Pope arrived, they stood up on their seats to greet him from a distance, as a way to tell him: “Today, we are here too!” At the end of the audience, Pope Francis got closer and the boys instantly forgot the advice the ushers had given them to stay at their seats. The Pope greeted them one by one, exchanging a few words with everyone, and then blessed two baby Jesus dolls for the manger that was to be prepared at the jail. With the protocol already broken, in a familiar and calm atmosphere, they couldn’t help asking: “Pope, can we take a selfie?” Each of them got to take their own picture with Francis.
We then proceeded towards Castel Sant’Angelo and, like children at a party, none of them could hide the wonder in their eyes.
We could have taken them out for lunch at a restaurant downtown, but that would have kept things impersonal. Instead we invited them over to our house, welcoming them to our seminary on via Boccea. We wanted to make each of them feel important, loved, and looked at with attention, even down to the details of the menu: it was prepared with no pork meat to respect the Muslims among them. Boys don’t need anonymity, but rather the witness of people who live what they preach, and who are free because of a belonging that defines them. They are looking for this freedom, and need to see that it is possible. When they find it, they follow and try to give the best of themselves, always surprising you.
While looking at each of them sitting at the table with the seminarians, I thought to myself how this type of feast is possible for every man, even the most wounded and broken. It is possible not because of one’s particular talents or skills, but thanks to a house that is ready to make sure each one gets a seat of honor.
After lunch, we got ready to go back to the jail. The day drew to an end and, on the way back, a strange silence reigned. None of them complained that they had to go back behind bars. In their eyes there was a mysterious ray of gratitude and hope. Now they know that something unexpected can happen for each of them. Even for Daniel, the one who said, “Priest, you have a vice: making other people happy”.
The priest indeed has a great “vice”: to serve the good and the happiness of our fellow men. A vice of which to humbly “boast,” and for which to thank Him who has undeservedly granted it.
nicolò ceccolini(foto Servizio fotografico dell’Osservatore Romano)