In 2009, 17 young volunteers guided by the Centro San Lorenzo took the World Youth Day Cross to those affected by the earthquake in Aquila. It was a time of grace and intense consolation. Desiring to continue to be “missionaries of the cross” for other youth who were suffering, two groups of volunteers took the Cross this year to the detainees of Rebibbia prison in Rome, thanks to the collaboration of Sister Rita, a Canossian religious and member of the chaplaincy at the penitentiary institute.
The first two visits were carried out during Lent 2010 in sector IV of the prison, which holds the people convicted of crimes related to the mafia. Three youths from the Centro San Lorenzo received special permission from the director of the institute to organise two meetings with about 20 detainees over the period of a week. The first meeting enabled the volunteers to become acquainted with the detainees, to present the video “The Power of the Cross” and to offer their personal testimonies about the effect that the cross has had in their own lives. The second visit was carried out with an intense celebration around the cross. Ann, an American student living in Rome, commented upon her experience there:
“As a young woman going to Rebibbia prison, accompanied by two young men and armed with little more than a few inspirational song books and a life-sized wooden cross, I could never have prepared myself for how safe I would feel, nor how humbled my own faith would be before the faith of the men to whom we were ministering. We prayed together, side by side with the WYD Cross on our shoulders, and I realized, as I watched them kiss the Cross and embrace it, how we who had brought the Cross were only instruments of God’s Grace, of the message that God Himself was sending. The Cross is not only a source of comfort and hope; it is God calling His children home. These men will carry their past with them forever, yet in the Cross, those elements of our past that remain with us are glorified, and in such a way that guides us in our continued redemption. It was truly a privilege to pray with these men, and to be a part of whatever God’s plan for their future may be.”
Profoundly moved by the visit of the World Youth Day Cross, the director of the prison, after having taken it himself upon his shoulders, asked to organise another celebration for all of the other detainees, with the presence of 10 youths and two priests from the Centro San Lorenzo. The celebration was held on the 29th of May 2010. Remembering that John Paul II went personally to Rebibbia to forgive his attacker, the youth from the Centro San Lorenzo decided to focus the new celebration on reconciliation so that the detainees, through the Cross, could actually feel the immense mercy of God with their own hands and in so doing, could receive a new hope.
The ceremony began with a presentation of the video of the Cross, which again, had a great impact on the detainees that were present. They were profoundly struck by the force of the testimonies given by the youth on their encounters with Christ and by the truth of the words of Christ on the Cross. Thus it was no wonder that it was then spontaneously proposed for them to come too and venerate the symbol of the Passion of Christ.
They were invited to write down their prayer intentions, their anxieties and their sufferings and to place them at the foot of the Cross. The two priests that were present provided a beautiful introduction to the Sacrament of Confession as the greatest opportunity for receiving the Father’s mercy personally. From that point on there was a steady flow of inmates seeking confession, some for the first time since they have received the Sacrament as a child. Bernard Marusic, vice-director of the Centro San Lorenzo, described his experience of the visit:
“This, for me, was the strongest manifestation of how boundless the mercy of God truly is – that whatever these people have done previously and that whatever we have done previously, does not affect the patience of our loving Father who merely desires for us to come back to him. To witness these men realise this and take a step towards His love was truly moving. In meeting with the inmates after our time of prayer, some (with red, watery eyes) asked us for continued prayer and shared with us their hope and plans for when they will be released. Others made mention of their disbelief, that this Cross that has travelled the whole world came to this place, that in many ways, seems cut off from the world. For me this served as a continued reminder of how the Lord, comes to us “in the place where we are” and that all we need to do is ask. The Lord was so gracious to give us this experience, to encourage us as “missionaries of the Cross” and to continue to take the WYD Cross to places of suffering to offer this symbol of hope to those that may have lost their own.”
Now the director of another Roman prison has asked for a visit from the World Youth Day Cross for next autumn. The graces given through this Cross are truly infinite!
Fr. Eric Jacquinet