Saint John XXIII’s return to Bergamo. First stop: the city’s prison

Saint John XXIII’s return to Bergamo. First stop: the city’s prison

By Marco Ronvalli/ lastampa.it

First stage of the pilgrimage. The emotional moment for detainees and operators. Symbols and human experiences. And an invitation to hope. For everyone;

“Rejoice that I am here. I placed my heart next to yours. The Pope has come, here I am to you. What a great thing is, brothers, Christianity! I knew you wanted me, and I wanted you too. That is why I am here. To tell you the heart I put in it, speaking to you, it’s hard to explain, but what other language do you want the Pope to speak to you? I put my eyes in your eyes, but why are you crying? Be glad that I am here. I put my heart close to yours. The Pope has come, here I am to you”. It was the morning of December 26, 1958, on St. Stephen day, and John XXIII was addressing the prisoners of the prison of Regina Coeli - a kilometer from the Vatican, on the same bank of the Tiber river- a few minutes after 8 AM. In the “rotunda”, in the centre of the four wards swarming with prisoners, there was a small makeshift altar and around it, in a circle, the officials together with the bishop of Orvieto Pieri, then inspector general of the Chaplains of the Institutes for Prevention and Punishment of Italy, and the Minister of Justice. The moment when the Pontiff appeared seemed to expand, then that tide of men in striped uniform exploded in an endless applause.

“Be glad that I am here. I put my heart close to yours. The Pope has come, here I am to you”. The same words echoed on Thursday 24 May 2018, yesterday, under a powerful sun in the square of the so-called “walk” of Bergamo’s prison. The glass casket with the body of St. John XXIII arrived at the district house at 4.30, amid another endless applause, after a journey of over 600 km, between the Vatican Basilica and the city of Bergamo in Northern Italy. A journey on the highway, after leaving the Vatican shortly after 7, in a dark van, escorted by the Vatican Police and Gendarmerie and continued at the gates of the city, on a pick-up truck, the urn placed so to make the body of the Holy Pontiff visible to those - thousands – of people waving to his passage: first in the city center where he was received by the authorities, then, in the prison.

It is there that the ancient peregrinatio rite (only Saint Pius X in 1960 and Blessed Pius IX in 2001 temporarily returned “home” after their Petrine ministry), took on a dimension of great actuality: with the presence of a holy body - to be looked at and from which to feel looked at; to be loved and from which to feel loved - capable of giving rise to hope in a place of sufferance. When the door - after the entrance of the bishop of Bergamo Francesco Beschi - opened wide and the bodily remains of the Pontiff were revealed, it was as if it were the holy doors of the year of mercy opening. And as the choir started singing a hymn to Pope Roncalli “good shepherd of the flock of the Lord”, everyone’s emotion was very palpable. Not only of the prisoners, men and women (strictly separated), almost two hundred in all, but also that of the agents of custody, of the non-commissioned officers and of the prison police officers, of the operators, of the director of the structure, Cosima Buccoliero, of the chaplain, Don Fausto Resmini: all involved in different ways for the preparation of this unusual meeting, especially for younger prisoners and those of foreign origins (well over half).

There were also many tears, like on that 26 December ’58, tears, but also smiles.

Who knows. It is an injection of hope for those - including us so far - whom we have called prisoners: but who are first and foremost people, with their ugly stories, their accounts to be settled with justice, their serving time, but also their right to a fresh start, to imagine a different future. The white gourd was immediately removed and it seemed to be stirring up high - as a sign of festive greeting - the Pope from Bergamo to Regina Coeli: “My dear children, my dear brothers, we are in the Father’s house here too. Are you happy that I have come?” He had asked the detainees, under the flashes of the photographers. Yesterday in Bergamo Saint John XXIII spoke with his mute presence, dialogued through his remains, with his being there, right there. It is not by chance that some have declared feeling a sense of forgiveness before them, of having kissed the urn of an icon of mercy. In a clip for “Vatican News” Don Resmini told that, in recent days, quite a few have had the chance to uncover writings or speeches of Pope only to promise they would never forget Him. He, too, to other people in their same situation, he had promised with great spontaneity that he would not forget them. “This encounter, even if it is sure, will remain profound in my soul”.

It was like that. In the communion of saints for those who truly believe. But perhaps also for those who, like one of the recluses I had behind me, while the bishop was speaking, loosened his gaze while taking deep breaths of relief. “The first thought was addressed to you who live in prison, your families and those who work in Via Gleno, when we thought of bringing the remains of Pope John to Bergamo,” Monsignor Beschi said, adding: “I hope that the Holy Pope will bring peace to the hearts of all of you”. And again: “A peace that nourishes the hope that this punishment and the others that unite us in the trial of suffering are not useless”.

And so it happened that for more than one inmate queuing in the line to approach the remains of the saint, after touching the urn, after making the sign of the Cross, after putting in a basket a message, appeared more relaxed. His harsh attitude had gone. Sprouts of Redemption? Who knows. “Yes, we can...”, “We can start again”: a prisoner comments.

“I ask you a prayer: the first letter that you will write, must bring the news that the Pope has come among you and that he is committed to special intentions of prayer for each of you, for your wives, your sisters ...”: and with this request, Pope John bid farewell to Queen Coeli sixty years ago. “Yes, in the first letter that I will send, I will write: Pope John has come to visit us”, so a prisoner with whom I commented for a few minutes on the meaning of this event within the adventure of the pilgrimage that has just begun. It is difficult, at this moment, for me to forget the story of Saint Stephen that morning, so often heard by the pontiff’s secretary, the then Monsignor Loris Capovilla, then centenary cardinal whose second anniversary of death falls on 26 May - tomorrow. “Before bidding farewell the Pope wanted to be photographed with the detainees. When he left, he saw a man leaving the group of inmates gathered around the altar, looking at him with reddened eyes from crying, and falling to his feet asking him: “Do the words of hope that you have spoken also apply to me? Pope John did not answer. He bent over the man, lifted him up, embraced him and kept him close to himself. It was at this point - one could read in the next day newspaper - “that the event had shaken the walls of the Regina Coeli. Nothing remains of the typical prison atmosphere. For a few hours yesterday, the same this also happened in Bergamo.

During the veneration of the relics, prayer and reflection, not only the words of Saint John XXIII were recalled, but also those of his successors. Of Paul VI to Regina Coeli on April 9, 1964: “Well, I came to light a flame in each of you, were it extinguished; to say to each one that you still have some possibilities of good, new, great chances, perhaps made even greater and more consistent by your own misfortune...”. While John Paul II in the same prison on 9 July 2000, said: “Prison life can acquire human features and be enriched by a spiritual dimension, which is most important for your life”.

Benedict XVI at Casal di Marmo on 18 March 2007: “Dear friends, what is the secret of love, the secret of life? The Gospel helps us to understand who God really is: He is the merciful Father who loves us beyond all measure in Jesus. The errors we commit, even if they are serious, do not corrode the fidelity of his love”. And again: “ We must understand what freedom is and what is only the appearance of freedom”. And Pope Francis, on 10 July 2015 in Palmasola, Bolivia (a kind of hell - also seen by the writer - where the more than 5,000 “guests” manage themselves in the comings and goings of family and friends, and various trades): “The man standing before you is a man who has experienced forgiveness. A man who was, and is, saved from his many sins. That is who I am. I don’t have much more to give you or to offer you, but I want to share with you what I do have and what I love. It is Jesus Christ, the mercy of the Father”. And again “ If there are times when we experience sadness, when we’re in a bad way, when we’re depressed or have negative feelings, I ask you to look at Christ crucified. Look at his face; in his eyes there is a place for us.”

How not to think of the crypt under the church of Santa Maria della Pace, next to the parish church of Sotto il Monte, the heart of the village, an open-air sanctuary? “There, casts of the right hand and the face of Pope John are preserved in a crystal case; made by Giacomo Manzù a few hours after the pope died on June 3, 1963, when the sculptor - who had already portrayed the pontiff and was completing the Door of Death for the Vatican Basilica - was called to eternalize in bronze the features of the pontiff and the hand that had signed the “Pacem in Terris”. And there that immobile face looks in the direction of the crucifix, continuing that daily gesture,” Monsignor Claudio Dolcini recalls, the parish priest who Sunday evening will welcome the remains of St. John XXIII in his home town. There, again, an inscription evokes Pope Roncalli’s words to his confessor, a few days before he died, fifty-five years ago: “The secret of my priesthood lies in the crucifix, which I wanted to place before my bed. He is looks at me and I talk to him. No one is rejected by his love, by his forgiveness.

Mon, 05/28/2018 - 19:58
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