“I was in prison and you came to me”

(The following are excerpts from an address given recently by Pope Benedict XVI at Rome’s Rebbiba Prison. Although he was speaking specifically to the inmates, he is also speaking in general to us all.)

Dear brothers and sisters,

With great joy and emotion I come among you this morning for a well timed visit just a few days before celebrations of the Birth of Our Lord. I extend a warm greeting to all present, especially the Minister of Justice, Paula Severino, and chaplain, whom I thank for his words of welcome addressed to me on your behalf. I greet the Prison director, Dr. Canton Caramel, his co-workers, prison guards and volunteers who devote themselves to the activities of this Institute. And I especially greet the inmates, to whom I express my closeness.

“I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:36). These are the words of the Last Judgment, as told by the Evangelist Matthew, and these words of the Lord, in which he identifies with the prisoners, express the full meaning of my visit with you today.

…I have come to tell you simply that God loves you with infinite love, and you are always the same children of God. The only-begotten Son of God, The Lord Jesus, experienced prison, He was subjected to trial before a court and suffered the most cruel death sentence.

…Dear brothers and sisters, human and divine justice are very different. Of course, men are not able to apply divine justice, but should at least look at it, trying to grasp the deep spirit that animates it, to enlighten human justice, to avoid – as unfortunately often happens – the inmate becoming an outcast. In fact, God is the one who proclaims justice with force, but at the same time, heals all wounds with the balm of mercy.

The parable of the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-16) on day-laborers in the vineyard helps us understand the difference between human and divine justice, because it clearly explains the delicate relationship between justice and mercy. The parable describes a farmer who takes on workers for his vineyard. He does so, however, at different times of day, so that some work all day while others just one hour. When the time comes for payment, the master arouses wonder and ignites a debate among the workers. The issue regards the generosity – considered an injustice by those present – of the vineyard owner, who decides to give workers the same wages to both the workers from the morning and those from late afternoon. From a human point of view this decision is an authentic injustice, from God’s point of view, it is an act of kindness, because divine justice gives to each his own, and also includes mercy and forgiveness.

…in Him justice and charity coincide: there is no just action that is not also an act of mercy and forgiveness and at the same time, there is no act of mercy that is not perfectly just.

How far the logic of God is from our own! And how different is our way of acting from His! The Lord invites us to understand and observe the true spirit of the law, to give it fulfillment in love for those in need. “Love fulfills the Law,” writes St. Paul (Romans 13:10): the more our justice is animated by love for God and neighbor, the more perfect it will be…

Dear friends, today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. May the Birth of the Lord, now approaching, rekindle hope and love in your heart. The birth of the Lord Jesus, which we will commemorate in a few days, reminds us of His mission to bring salvation to all men without exception. His salvation is not imposed, but comes to us through acts of love, mercy and forgiveness that we ourselves create. The Child of Bethlehem will be happy when all men will return to God with a renewed heart. We ask in silence and prayer each one of us to be freed from the prison of sin, vainglory, and pride: everyone needs release from this interior prison to be truly free from evil, from anxiety and death. Only that Child lying in the manger is able to give full freedom to all this!

I want to finish by telling you that the Church supports and encourages any efforts to guarantee everyone a decent life. Be sure that I am close to each of you, your families, your children, your young, your old and I carry you all in my heart before God. May the Lord bless you and your future!

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