No one knows how many letters Pope Francis gets a week from Catholics and others worldwide wanting him to turn his attention to their concern. But rarely, if ever, in the 2,000-year history of the papacy have prisoners received a missive from the pontiff.
All that is changing this month as Pope Francis has responded to approximately 500 letters he received from U.S. prisoners sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles. The letters, written in March and April, were the initiative of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, based in Washington, D.C., and its national coordinator, Jody Kent Lavy.
Among the messages to the pope were ones from prisoners who described themselves as having "essentially been discarded," as being "looked down on by society, an embarrassment to be swept under the rug and forgotten."
But the act of writing to Francis offered them hope, many acknowledged. The prisoners did not expect that their letters would reduce their life sentences, but many expressed the hope that "no child should ever be discarded or thrown away, no matter their mistake." One 50-year-old prisoner wrote to the pope that he could not "fathom the thought that this will be another child's fate."
For his part, Francis said the stories and pleas in the letters "moved me deeply." He called for a review of this type of sentencing in the "light of justice and the possibility of reform and rehabilitation."
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Jesuit Fr. Michael Kennedy, executive director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, sent the letters to the pope. In his May 7 response, Francis asked Kennedy to assure the prisoners that "the Lord knows and loves each of them and that the Pope remembers them with affection in his prayers." As he has in other cases, Francis asked that prisoners pray for him and for "the spread of the Gospel message of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ."
In reading several of the messages to the pope, it is evident prisoners were aware and inspired by the pope's visit to a juvenile detention center in Rome last year and his washing the feet of prisoners. "Your boldness and willingness to break traditions to make the poor know they matter and are loved is comforting," one of the incarcerated wrote.
When the mail is passed out in jails throughout the country later this month, each man and woman who wrote to Francis will receive a copy of the pope's letter as well as copies of articles about the letters campaign, Kent Lavy told NCR. She said she hopes the letters will arrive in time for the second anniversary in June of the Miller v. Alabama ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional when imposed upon children. States across the nation are considering whether Miller should be applied retroactively, she said.
[Patricia Lefevere is a longtime NCR contributor.]