Dante's Paradiso. Wikimedia Commons

New Creatures

At a prison in Padua, Italy, 3 inmates receive the sacraments in the presence of their victims' families. A similar story is taking place in the US, where a friendship that has grown through mainly letters is filling a man's life in prison with hope.
Alessandra Stoppa

He tidies his collar, just a touch. He wants his friend to look good, perfect for what is about to happen to him, but he doesn't want to distract him. You don't forget something so delicate, done by one man to another in a maximum security prison, where they are all lifers.

Franco is the godfather. He stands beside Bledar as, in Baptism, he becomes Giovanni. He is missing an ear; on his head are the scars of his old life and in that white gown, down to his ankles, he seems like a child grown up abruptly. This is a man born again, before the eyes of his family, who have come from Albania, and are sitting there near him, all six of them, dressed for a feast. They look at him and weep–most of all, his mother. That son has no longer the name she gave him, he is no longer her Bledar, and the whole day she will go on calling him Giovanni.

His sister has not seen him for 13 years and now she finds him in this strange company that fills the auditorium of the Padua prison. There are quite a lot of us, about 200, come from outside, from far away; there are friends, journalists, magistrates, prison guards (some of whom are not on duty, but have come for this event, even one with a fever). Then, there are a few guests whom you wouldn't expect. There is Gemma Capra, the widow of Police Commissioner Calabrese, killed by terrorists in 1972; Margherita Coletta, the widow of the police officer murdered in Iraq in 2003; and Carlo Castagna, who lost his family in a massacre in Erba in 2006. There are the children of Anaconda, a cooperative outreach in Varese that accommodates handicapped people. They all came thanks to a network of ties. "There is a fact that has bound us together," says Nicola Boscoletto, of the Giotto Cooperative that offers work to the detainees: "the exceptional fact of these friends of ours." Bledar, Umberto, and Lodovico will receive the sacraments together. Umberto will finish his sentence in 2022; today, he is with his wife, his daughter, and his grandson. Ludovico, serving a life sentence, has been here for 24 years and has lost his mother and father. "You are my family," he tells the friends around him.

Together, they tour the workshops, the kitchens, the areas where the detainees work; then, there is the solemn Mass celebrated by Archbishop Antonio Mattiazzo of Padua. Today is the Feast of St. Matthias, the Apostle who was chosen in place of Judas. "We know nothing else about him except that he was faithful to Jesus to the end," Benedict XVI has written. "To the greatness of this fidelity was added the divine call"–by means of the toss of a coin, a "gamble," just like the beginning of this story of friendship that began somewhat by chance in 1991, with gardening work inside the prison, and has lasted to today.

A Tearful Thank You
There is a buffet after the Mass, and the detainees carry around trays, though there is little space to move, attentive and well-groomed, with gel in their hair and clean shirts. And when the cake is cut, they jump, as if in a sports stadium, for those being celebrated. As they greet each other and the visitors, you can see that most of them have never met, but it doesn't matter. A young detainee weeps when he meets Castagna. He feels the need, like others, to thank him "for what he did, for forgiving. In that way, you killed me, it made me feel so small." It is a moving thank you. What a man needs most, to be forgiven without limits, is almost unbearable. It's too much. Everyone who meets Castagna, even without saying a word, has this question on his face: "How is it possible?" "Don't get mad at me, but at Him. It is an Other who forgave for me." He has no other answer and says that forgiveness is like a domino. If the first piece is placed well, the rest will follow of their own accord. "And the first piece was placed by God"–that evening, immediately after the slaughter, when the police told him everything: his wife, his daughter, and his grandchild were all killed. "From that precise moment, I felt myself supported. The Father was with me."

The Good I Found There
A little later, during the party, Castagna spoke about the couple who murdered his family, Olindo and Rosa, and of what he feels about them: "a feeling of friendship." He speaks of forgiveness, along with the truth of how things happened. Mercy and justice: "These are two things a man cannot hold together on his own," says Franco Nembrini, a literature teacher invited to speak about Dante. "The Divine Comedy is the story of this encounter between mercy and truth, impossible for man." In order to forgive, man has to reduce the truth, and if he keeps to the truth, he cannot forgive. "It's either just or good, not both together–until Christ was born," Nembrini says. And he thinks back to what he saw in the morning, over one of the gates along the corridors of the prison: "You were not made to live like brutes…" "It's true, we are not made to live like that, but it happens. It can be seen, in everyone's life, that we are capable of being brutes, when we go wrong, very wrong. Today, though, I discovered that my greatest need, everyone's need, is to be forgiven, each one for his own evil."

You can see this in the eyes of Margherita Coletta who, in front of the detainees and other strangers, speaks of herself. Not of Nassiriya and the attack in which her husband was killed in 2003, but of herself. "Last year, it was terrible because I could no longer hear God. Not because He wasn't there, but because I was asking myself questions and giving myself the answers. I took it for granted, because I felt I had already arrived. Now everything has flourished again, but only thanks to that mercy that we have heard mentioned so much today, and which is our only hope." At this, a detainee said, "I will never go back."
He says who it was that he killed, or whom he allowed others to kill. "In order to say something like that, either you have to be crazy, or only Jesus comes to mind," says Boscoletto. "It's a scandal, exactly like Jesus' invitation to the widow of Nain before her dead son: 'Woman, don't cry.'" In three words, something is introduced that opens up the limit, something that makes you no longer need to run away. "Dante does not escape from the dark forest to save himself," says Nembrini. The whole Comedy is the tale of "the good I found there," in the depth of darkness.

And there is no need to try to imagine it, because the children of Anaconda are able to convey this, sitting in their wheelchairs and present with their nervous and mental illnesses. There, before the silent detainees, they recite Dante's verses from memory, dressed in their theatrical costumes. They had prepared a performance of Dante's canticles and offered some excerpts for the prisoners. The director holds the microphone for those who are unable to, kneeling down at their feet, and accompanying the words when their voices fail. "There is a possibility of good inside the worst evil, if we let ourselves be accompanied," says Nembrini. "We have to have the courage to do this; in this way, life reveals itself as mercy."

This is what Ye Wu wants to tell his former prison mates. He has come in an elegant jacket, and is all emotion. "When I came out of here, I was helped by my friends." He served out his sentence two years ago and is now called Andrea–he was baptized at the Easter Vigil. "I am happy that I chose this road. All that happened in my life has not been by chance. Earlier, as I went around the site, I saw that you are building something great. It's good. I am happy and I am waiting for you. Your names are in my prayers."

Where There is a Man...
With Andrej is a Russian boy, 20 years old, who has nothing to do with the prison, but he shares the same history with the others. He met the Movement at the university, and this led him to ask for Baptism. "Let's not be misled by the place, or by emotion, or by the people," says Boscoletto. "This is what happens here. But it happens everywhere there is someone committed to the truth of life. Where there are people who are friends like this, there is a movement. There is a creation, a re-creation." That is to say: unexpectedly, something great happens. It's enough to see the faces of the prison guards who allowed a day like this–and were waiting for it for months.

The words with which we take our leave are not those of anyone present. A video is projected on the wall of a group of young people living in Uganda who feel these men to be fellow-travellers. They are so happy at what has happened that "to tell you, we are going to sing." They had made that film of their songs in a room in Kampala. There were even some small children, and each of them bears the name of one of the Paduan prisoners–they have "adopted" them through a child sponsorship.

Only suddenly does it come back to you that these buildings are a real prison. Bledar says, "I might possibly never come out, but this is the most beautiful day of my life." He is leaning on the red bars that make a square pattern in the sunlight on the cement. There are the walls and there is the punishment. Everything is still there as it was this morning, but you feel you are among the first who began to see there was a new life, because Christ made it happen.

"I share a cell with Franco. He would always tell me: I have met a big family. And I would ask him what he was talking about. Now I am here and I go to work in the workshop and I sing. The others ask me, 'What's gotten into you?' I don't know; I am just happy. I may be a happy fool in prison, but I am happy." You know Francesco; you met him a year ago, but he was not as he is now. He was not beaming. He says it was the Spiritual Exercises in Rimini. "It was there that I came to know that I am a beat of God's heart. I came back here knowing this." He was someone who never wept, but today he is happy to weep for Bledar, who, in front of his parents and his fellow prisoners says only a few words at the microphone: "I thank Jesus because He has accepted me as His soldier."

You think back to when he asked for the sacraments, two years ago. In the meantime, he has made a journey; his encounter with Jesus has become part of history, here, where time doesn't exist. "As I received Baptism, I felt something inside me that liberated me."