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The 'Francis effect' takes hold at a notorious Bolivian prison

By Alvaro de Juana

La Paz, Bolivia, Jul 28, 2015 / 04:39 pm (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis’ July 10 visit to a prison in Bolivia was just one of several dozen events over the course of the recent papal trip to Latin America.

But for many of the inmates and workers present at the notorious Palmasola Prison in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, the Pope’s visit was a turning point and an invitation to make a new start.

“The man who is standing before you is one who has been forgiven. A man who was and is saved from his many sins,” Pope Francis told the prisoners that day.

Father Leonardo da Silva Costa, the National Coordinator for Prison Ministry in Bolivia, said many of the prisoners took the Pope’s words to heart.

“It was a thrill to see him at ease and speaking his native language. I was moved by his expression when he saw the statue of the Virgin of Copacabana on the way between the women’s section, the prison administration offices, and the men’s section,” the priest recounted to CNA.

After the Pope departed, Fr. Da Silva – who was in charge of the visit – said he noted that the inmates were talking among themselves. “They wanted to tell about what they heard, what moved them, how they felt, what they were thinking and how life would be going forward.”

“People cried together, and their eyes were filled with joy and hope. Some of them wondered how it could be possible that the representative of Christ on earth would come to see them,” the priest explained. “The police, the security guards, came away from the meeting with a joy that was unusual, brotherly, a smile unlike any other…it was a revolution of love. Even non-Catholics were saying, ‘What a grace!’”

Even so, it was not an easy encounter. Three of the prisoners offered their testimony to the Pope, speaking about the rough prison conditions and the government’s prison policy.

Palmasola Prison is a maximum security facility notorious for its corruption, bribery and gang activity. Security guards are stationed only outside the facility; the inside is a “prison village,” run by gangs of prisoners themselves. Might makes right for the 3,000 inmates who are able to move about freely in the facility. Securing one’s own prison cell costs money, as do blankets, decent food, and protection from other prisoners. Two years ago, a riot killed more than 30 people, most of them burned to death.

“This is real life in the prisons in Bolivia. I even think they really toned down their complaints. They didn’t tell everything,” Fr. Da Silva said of the testimonies.

“All the authorities that have the power to manage, administer, decide upon and implement prison policy in the whole country were there,” he continued. “They didn’t hear anything new or surprising. It was a cry for help, aid, relief, to the point of desperation, taking advantage of the Pope’s presence to bring about structural change.”

While those in the prison are separated from society, “they haven’t lost their ability to analyze reality, to provide thoughtful contributions, knowing prison conditions from the inside with the goal of improving them,” the priest said.

Asked whether they were afraid of reprisals or if they had received any warning, he replied, “I still believe in democracy, in good intentions, in an ethical conscience, in morality and in the recovery of the values that are dormant in everyone. They asked the Pope to ‘be their spokesman and to make known the constant violations of fundamental rights.’”

Now, a few weeks after the Pope’s visit, Fr. Da Silva said, “it’s expected that there will be an evaluation of everything that was organized, articulated and experienced with the representatives of the inmates, the authorities and the Church.”

He voiced hope that all of those present for the encounter with the Pope will not merely return to their everyday routine.  

“We want to get the most we can out of this pastoral visit, reducing the bars, going forward with restorative justice, reducing the walls, and closing up the open wounds,” he explained. “(W)hat we have to do now is publish the Pope’s messages, re-read them, listen to them over and over again, pray, give thanks, form committees and working groups.”

Concerning possible changes in the country’s prison ministry, Fr. Da Silva said, “We have to keep on listening, show them love, and set in motion actions to improve the system and the lives of the prisoners.”

This requires “pastoral ministry with a prophetic visibility, involving comprehensive evangelization, proclamation, condemnation (of evil), witness, and commitment, with the feelings, thoughts and actions of Jesus Christ.”

Additionally, “we’re going to need to help the authorities respond with greater sensitivity to the prison problem, revising the inconsistencies in legislation, addressing social inequalities, poverty and violence, and working on prevention, not just rehabilitation,” he said.


Past Issues

Feb. 10, 2019

Jan. 27, 2019

Jan. 13, 2019

Dec. 23, 2018

Dec. 9, 2018

Nov. 25, 2018

Nov. 11, 2018

Oct. 28, 2018

Oct. 14, 2018

Sept. 16, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: 2018 Golf Classic; student athletes; physically challenged; Leonard Stegman; Lesson in forgiveness; Sending us on a mission

Sept. 2, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Priest crisis; Scandal; Opioid addictions; Seeds of Suicide; Leightons; St. Anne; Vincke; seminarians; Dominican Sisters; Stewardship Conference; Dead Sea Scrolls; PSR programs; Roe V. Wade

 

August 12, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Prayer and Action; Totus Tuus; Janee Bernal; Diana Ramirez; Heidy Ramirez; Bishop Gilmore honored for 20 years ministry; suicide; contraception and abortion; Dead Sea Scrolls; Humanae Vitae; certification in youth ministry; Chuck Weber; Cathedral rectory chapel; Sister Viola Heichelbech; Adam Urban

July 15, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Immigration Protest/Rally; Faith and Light Fiesta; Seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls; Corpus Christi procession; Prayers for priests; Sisters turn 100; Michael Brungardt; Gerald Vincke; Massacre in San Salvador; Action for Alex 

 

June 3, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Parish Pray for Priestly Vocations; Appeal reaches $10 million; Gangs; Seminarians; Pam Willis; Why I like being a priest; Happy Father's Day; Patricia Lujan; Tyler and Rachel Bennett; Adoption Protection Act.

May 20, 2018
KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Track meet; Beloved Sinners; Benjamin Martin retires; Smiles; Future of Fortune Telling; Hoisington mission; DofI; Getting Equipped; Spring Social; First Communion; Confirmation
KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Track meet; Beloved Sinners; Benjamin Martin retires; Smiles; Future of Fortune Telling; Hoisington mission; DofI; Getting Equipped; Spring Social; First Communion; Confirmation

May 6, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Archbishop Romero; Seeing, Touching, Tasting; Exhortation; Father Patrick Conroy; Happy Mother's Day; A child on your doorstep; Vibrant Ministries Grant; From the heart of a young father; Love Gives Life; Roman Holiday; Smartphone; retirement
Fossil Hunting

 

April 15, 2018

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Easter Vigil; Angelica Village; Colorado woman; The art of anger; Cimarron Couple; Staats; Adoption; 

Father Ultan Murphy anniversary; Coughlan; Spiritual Advisor to Hoodlums; Woman of Courage; Oration contest; Darcy Feist  

 

April 1, 2018

 

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Defending Adoption; Led by the Spirit; Knights; ABC Pregnancy Center;
Memorial of Mary; Homeless; Relics; Down syndrome abortion; Chrism Mass

 

March 18, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: SKYAC; Aleksandr Men; Fasting for Priestly Vocations; Uganda; School for deaf; Rannah Evetts; Oberle; Rachel and Doug Trombley; Oscar Romero; Paul VI; DACA

 

 

March 4, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Fasting for priestly vocations; Father Juan; Fasting and prayer;
Quest Weekend 2018; DACA; With God, anything is possible; Homelessness in our communities; Rhubarb, Kansas;
What's the point of fasting; Rite of Election; same-sex couples

 

Feb. 18, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Catholic Schools Week; Rachel Doll; Ellinwood; Great Bend; Garden City; Ness City; Dodge City; Sister Rita Schwarzenberger; Nigeria; Bishop Hermes; Fasting for Priestly Vocations; World Day for Consecrated Life; 50th Anniversary St. Dominic School; What will life be like in 50 years?

 

 

Feb. 4, 2018

 

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: March for Life; Tracy and Ross Smith; Adoption; Vibrant Ministries; Faith and Light;
Pro-Life; Mortal sin to discard elderly; DACA; Abortion; Dreamers; Human Trafficking

 

Jan. 21, 2018

 KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Louise Korbe; Anne Frank; Miep Gies; Home Heat; Father Solanus

 

Jan. 7, 2018

KEYWORDS, PHRASES: Good news and kingdom living; dreamers; Sister Teresa Orozco; Infant Adoption; Elderly; a moral conundrum; seminarian; feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

 

 

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