You may remember the inspiring story of a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles, who sent to the pope some letters from juvenile offenders.
Well, the pope wrote back.
The priest who started the ball rolling, Fr. Mike Kennedy, SJ, tells what happened:
May 4 was a regular day until I started opening my mail. I noticed an envelope with the Vatican insignia printed on its back. I opened it and there was the papal seal embossed and in small letters “Francis.”
When I read the letter from the pope, many feelings flowed through me. The letter only made sense to me in terms of previous choices I had made in my life: someone who has worked with immigrants and refugees; someone who has done what many labeled as “civil disobedience” after the killing of the Jesuits in El Salvador in 1989.
I thought of what Dorothy Day said when working at the margins: “To work with the poor is a harsh and dreadful love.” Most of the time it feels like you are losing. Being at the margins brings its own isolation.
It really is a paradox in the sense that when one finds God in the darkest places, God reveals himself most deeply and personally.
And yet, many times working with the poor and people in prison — i.e. like those whose feet the pope washed on Holy Thursday — it is hard not to question “Why?” Why did the pope wash the feet of criminals? Why, with all the ornate churches in Rome, would the pope choose to be with youth who are considered outcasts?
Usually, this population is looked upon as worthless, “basura,” garbage. The pope’s kneeling down and washing a young criminal’s feet is a powerful gesture that this is a privileged place. This is where God is present, more than the churches where the best baroque art and golden carvings are stored.
In his letter to us, Pope Francis spoke of how the washing of feet we did at Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall was connected to his foot-washing on Holy Thursday in Rome. Here the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, in a simple letter, affirmed that the choice to kneel down with a population that society has neglected is where we find God’s presence.
With his gesture, he points to where we should serve. Rather than running away from those who are not healthy, we should run toward those who need healing…
…On the night I received the letter from the pope, I made copies that I handed to the juveniles in prison. When they read it, their first reaction was of silent disbelief. Then they started sharing how “it seems like this pope wants to give us a second chance just like those who love us. They know that we are not bad, but we have made bad decisions.”
Another said, “I’m glad that you took the time out of your busy schedule to respond to us. It means a lot to know someone like you cares.”
Read it all, including the Holy Father’s letter (which he signed simply “Francis”).