A week before Pope Francis made his historic visit to Philadelphia’s largest jail, several dozen people gathered on the steps of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in that city for a special youth justice interfaith prayer service.
Organized by the CFSY, the Pennsylvania Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and a number of faith-based organizations, the service honored the lives of people sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as children, their victims, and the loved ones of both.
It also thanked the Pope for his calls for a justice system that calls for more compassionate punishments and upholds the dignity of those in prison. Last year, His Holiness responded to 500 letters he received from prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed as children from across the country. He also has called for an end to all life sentences, calling them “a hidden death penalty.”
Father Dennis Gill, pastor of the Cathedral and the priest who celebrated mass alongside the Pope this past Saturday, officiated the service. He was joined by Rabbi Rachel Kobrin of Congregation Adath Jeshurun and Imam Muhammed Abdul-Aleem, Imam Emeritus of Masjidullah, Inc. in Philadelphia. Each shared words from their faith and together called for a more merciful justice system that focuses on rehabilitation and restoration, particularly of our young people. The crowd expanded with people joining from the street as they heard the faith leaders’ powerful words.
Following the service, we gathered together in a circle inside Mary, Undoer of Knots Grotto, which was specially built to honor the Pope, and shared about what brought us there. We heard the stories of mothers and spouses of people who were children when they were sentenced to die in prison and were now in their 40’s and 50’s. We heard from young men convicted of murder as teens, and loved ones of those killed by teens. Strangers held and comforted one another.
And we heard hope.
“This is a sign of religious traditions coming together outside the walls of our masjids, synagogues, and churches to be a collective body of humans, working together for the good of other humans,” said Eric Turner, Imam at Masjid Freehaven in Lawnside, New Jersey.
As Pope Francis said at the jail on Sunday, we are all wounded and in need of healing. That could not have been more apparent at our service. I’m grateful to all those who joined us, from near and far, and hopeful that it will continue to inspire all of us to seek healing and work toward a justice system that includes, in Pope Francis’s words, “the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”