Pope Francis celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s basilica for some 1,000 prison inmates on Sunday as part of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, after which he appealed for better prison conditions and invited world authorities to consider granting clemency to eligible inmates.

“I would like to make an appeal for better conditions in prison life, so that the human dignity of the detained is fully respected,” the Pope said at the Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square.

He emphasized the importance of the need for a criminal justice system “which isn’t just punitive, but open to hope and the re-insertion of the offender into society.”

The Pope also invited “the competent civil authorities” to consider making, during this Holy Year of Mercy, “an act of clemency toward those prisoners deemed eligible to benefit from such a measure” — in other words, modify or lower the harshness of a punishment or sentence imposed on some prisoners.

Earlier at Mass, Francis urged prison detainees to never lose hope, or fall into the temptation that they can never be forgiven. “If God hopes, then no one should lose hope,” he said. “For hope is the strength to keep moving forward. It is the power to press on towards the future and a changed life. It is the incentive to look to tomorrow, so that the love we have known, for all our failings, can show us a new path.”

He also spoke of the “hypocrisy” of those who see prisoners only as “wrongdoers”, and who disregard the possibility of rehabilitation.

Some of the inmates present at the Mass spoke afterwards to Vatican Radio about their faith, and the impact of faithful witness. “My experience has been hard and tough, but I must say that the faith is bringing me back to the right path, week after week,“ said one prisoner. “This is through following the Word of God with our friends and volunteers, and the Community of Sant’Egidio, who are very close to me and are helping me to regain the faith.”

Another said he had already met Pope Francis when he visited Naples in 2015. As then, when he was able to embrace the Pope, he said it felt like being “reborn.”

A further prisoner, echoing the Pope’s comments, said being at the Vatican on Sunday was a testimony to being able to change. “You can change, you can do it!,” he said. “We’ve made mistakes, everybody makes mistakes.”

The Pope’s attention to prisoners, their wellbeing and wish for rehabilitation has been one of the most constant and touching hallmarks of his pontificate. Often on papal visits he will call in on local prisons, and on three of the past four Holy Thursday’s, he has visited detention centers to wash inmates’ feet.

In August, he wrote a letter to a female prisoner in Chile (one of a number he has written to inmates) after she wrote to him asking for prayers. Often he encourages them never to lose hope. His driving principle is Jesus’ command “I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:36).

Clemency for Msgr. Vallejo?

It’s not yet clear, however, if the Pope's pleas for clemency will extend to the only prisoner being held in a Vatican jail, Msgr. Lucio Angel Vallejo Balda.

The Spanish priest was found guilty in July of leaking confidential Vatican documents and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He had already spent much of the year in custody. Before the trial, Francis described it as a “deplorable act" that did not help his curial reforms and was "in fact a crime”.

But since Msgr. Vallejo's incarceration in the summer, he has not had a papal visit nor, in this Year of Mercy, been pardoned, in contrast to Benedict XVI who pardoned his butler Paolo Gabriele just two months into his 18 month sentence, also for leaking confidential papal documents. 

The omission has not gone unnoticed by Italian PR woman Francesca Chaouqui, also found guilty of conspiring in the same crime as Msgr. Vallejo, but given a 10 month suspended sentence due to lack of evidence.

“The Pope is asking for an act of clemency for the prisoners,” she wrote on her Facebook page, but wondered “how it is possible not to realize the disconnect between words and deeds.”

“Does the Holy Father realize that Balda is rotting in a cell in the Vatican, alone, day and night?”, she asked. Chaouqui, who fell out with Msgr. Vallejo over the crime and the two exchanged barbed comments during the trial, called the Spanish former Vatican official a “deranged" man for whom jail is “making his craziness worse.”

She added that she was “convinced” the Pope was going to pardon Msgr. Vallejo on Sunday, but instead observed that the priest “wasn’t even able to participate in the event … nor even pass through the holy door.”

Ultimately, she said, “he is a poor crazy person who should be treated and not locked up.”

It wouldn’t be unprecendented for a pope to visit such a prisoner in jail. Benedict paid a visit to Gabriele to inform him of his pardon, while Pope St. John Paul II famously spent some time in conversation with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in an Italian jail. Some have argued it would be even more fitting for the Pope to visit Msgr. Vallejo given that he is a priest, and serving time in a Vatican jail.

A Vatican spokesman told the Register Nov. 7 he was currently unaware of any plans of the Pope to visit Msgr. Vallejo, but said if it happens, it will be a quiet affair.

In view of the Pope’s evident concern for the wellbeing of prisoners and his emphasis on mercy, it’s surely a case of not if, but when. Whether it will also include a pardon is less certain.