The Latest: 11 youth offenders freed after papal encounter
PANAMA CITY (AP) — The Latest on Pope Francis’ visit to Panama (all times local):
Eleven young offenders have been granted their freedom in Panama following a meeting with Pope Francis at the country’s main youth detention center.
Government official Emma Alba says one of them is 21-year-old Luis Oscar Martinez, who told the pontiff earlier Friday that he had turned his life around since his arrest in 2016.
Martinez told local TV that he was looking forward to being reunited with his family, “church brethren” and “the people who I know love me dearly.”
At the detention center, Francis exhorted the more than 100 inmates gathered at the facility not to lose hope and denounced marginalization and stigmatization of them.
Alba did not give the names of all those released, nor say what crimes they had been convicted of.
The pope regularly visits prisons during his foreign trips, in keeping with his belief in ministering to those on the margins of society.
Pope Francis is hearing the story of a young inmate during an encounter of prayer and confessions at Panama’s main youth detention center.
Luis Oscar Martinez is a 21-year-old who has been behind bars since 2016 and says he lacked the guiding hand of a father growing up. He tells the pontiff that he lost his way and “caused very deep pain to a loved one and to myself.”
Martinez thought his life was finished when he was arrested, but then he understood that “God my father is with me.”
Martinez said Friday that he finished high school in the facility. Now he hopes to please his mother by becoming an international chef and refrigeration specialist refrigeration — a dream that drew a smile from Francis.
The pope responded: “I liked that confession of yours. We have a father who loves us.”
More than 100 young people detained at the facility and brought from other centers took part in the encounter in a small chapel. The pope regularly visits prisons during his foreign trips, in keeping with his belief in ministering to the most marginalized in society.
Pope Francis is denouncing how society marginalizes and stigmatizes sinners and criminals when instead it should create opportunities for them to change.
Francis made the remarks during an emotional penitential liturgy Friday at Panama’s main youth detention facility, where more than 150 young people are serving time for murder, robbery and other crimes.
Francis brought World Youth Day to the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center so that its inmates, even behind barbed wire fencing, could participate in the Catholic Church’s big festival of faith.
In his homily, Francis recalled that society tends to label people good and bad, the righteous and the sinners. In his words:
“This attitude spoils everything, because it erects an invisible wall that makes people think that, if we marginalize, separate and isolate others, all our problems will magically be solved. When a society or community allows this, and does nothing more than complain and backbite, it enters into a vicious circle of division, blame and condemnation.”
Francis has made a tradition of visiting prisoners during his foreign visits, and has long made prison ministry part of his priestly vocation to preach to the most marginal in society. Just last year, Francis changed church teaching on the death penalty, saying it was inadmissible in all cases.
Pope Francis is bringing World Youth Day to Panama’s juvenile delinquents who can’t participate in the Catholic Church’s big festival of faith.
Francis on Friday will celebrate a special penitential Mass inside the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center, which is Panama’s main youth lockup. In a twist, he will also hear the inmates’ confessions inside confessionals the detainees made themselves.
It’s part of Francis’ belief that prisoners deserve the same dignity as everyone else — as well as hope.
Francis opened his first full day in Panama with that message of hope Thursday, formally welcoming tens of thousands of pilgrims to World Youth Day at a twilight pep rally at the capital’s seaside park.
He urged them to be builders of bridges of encounter, not “builders of walls that sow fear and look to divide and box people in,” a clear reference to the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.