PANAMA CITY -- Pope Francis heard confessions at a youth prison in Panama Friday, telling the young inmates that “you have a bigger purpose,” and that there is joy in heaven for one repentant sinner.
In this penitential act, God “does not look at labels and prison terms, but at his sons and daughters,” Pope Francis told the prisoners before offering the sacrament of reconciliation Jan. 25.
“The joy and hope of every Christian – of all of us, and the pope too – comes from having experienced this approach of God, who looks at us and says, ‘You are part of my family and I cannot leave you out in the cold; I cannot lose you along the way; I am here at your side,’” he said, according to his prepared remarks.
The Pope visited the Las Garzas de Pacora Juvenile Detention Center, less than 30 miles northeast of Panama City, to be close to the 180 imprisoned young people who are not able to attend World Youth Day, taking place Jan. 22-27.
Pope Francis has often visited prisons in Rome and during his travels to live out the Catholic Church’s corporal work of mercy, “I was in prison, and you visited me.”
The Pope’s visit to the Panamanian prison marked the first time that he has heard confessions during a prison visit. Twelve prisoners were administered the sacrament from Pope Francis and two other confessors.
God’s merciful love “faces head-on the complexity of life and every situation,” Francis told the young people, who are detained for crimes ranging from robbery to a double homicide.
Christ is not afraid to approach sinners, Pope Francis explained, because “he knows that in heaven there is more joy for a single converted sinner than for 99 righteous people who do not need conversion.”
The Gospel is characterized by “nothing less than that of God’s own heart,” he said. “The Lord wants to celebrate when he sees his children returning home.”
The Pope told the young detainees to reject the internal voice that “keeps whispering, ‘You can’t do it; you can’t do it’” and “haunts those who repent of their sin and acknowledge their mistakes.”
Pope Francis advised them to “seek out and listen to the voices that encourage you to look ahead, not those that pull you down.”
Christ “challenges us to ask and seek help when setting out on the path of improvement,” he said.
The Las Garzas de Pacora youth detention center is known in Panama for its comprehensive reintegration program, which includes vocational training and psychological rehabilitation under the supervision of UNICEF.
“A society is fruitful when it is able to generate processes of inclusion and integration, of caring and trying to create opportunities and alternatives that can offer new possibilities to the young, to build a future through community, education and employment,” Francis explained.
“Keep fighting, all of you, to seek and find the paths of integration and transformation. The Lord will bless, sustain and accompany you,” he said.
Before leaving the prison, Pope Francis greeted 30 adult detainees who built the confessionals for World Youth Day pilgrims.
Pope Francis also met privately with 450 youth pilgrims from Cuba Friday morning and talked with two Cuban bishops.