LAS GARZAS, Panama (AP) — Pope Francis on Friday denounced how society puts up "invisible walls" to marginalize sinners and criminals as he brought World Youth Day to Panama's juvenile delinquents who can't participate in the Catholic Church's big festival of faith.
Francis celebrated an emotional penitential liturgy inside Panama's main youth lockup, the Las Garzas de Pacora detention center. In a twist, he was also hearing the inmates' confessions inside confessionals the detainees made themselves.
It's all part of Francis' belief that prisoners deserve the same dignity as everyone else — as well as hope.
"There are no words to describe the freedom I feel in this moment," one of the inmates, Luis Oscar Martinez, told the pope at the start of the service.
In his homily, Francis recalled that society tends to label people good and bad, the righteous and the sinners, when it should instead spend its time creating opportunities for them to change.
"This attitude spoils everything, because it erects an invisible wall that makes people think that, if we marginalize, separate and isolate others, all our problems will magically be solved," he said, once again making reference to the walls that seek to divide people rather than unite them.
"When a society or community allows this, and does nothing more than complain and backbite, it enters into a vicious circle of division, blame and condemnation."
Francis has made a tradition of visiting prisoners during his foreign visits, and has long made prison ministry part of his vocation to minister to the most marginal in society. Just last year, Francis changed church teaching on the death penalty, saying it was inadmissible in all cases.
The change was in keeping with his belief that prisoners can always change and deserve chances for rehabilitation so they can re-enter society after serving their terms.
In a sign of that need for inclusion, many of the inmates were wearing the same World Youth Day white T-shirts that thousands of pilgrims are sporting around Panama City.
"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 said.
Las Garzas houses more than 150 inmates, some of whom are serving time for murder. The facility, considered a model, opened a year after five minors died in a fire at another prison in Panama City in 2011. Nine people including administrators and police were convicted of homicide or negligence in what was the worst tragedy for the country's youth prison system.
At the start of the service, Martinez told Francis of his remorse in losing part of his family after he committed an unspecified crime and was sentenced to serve his term at Las Garzas.
"I caused a profound pain in a dear friend and in myself," Martínez, 21, told the pope. He said he wanted to become a refrigeration mechanic when he got out.
"I hope to give this joy to my mother and be in communion with the part of my family that I lost."
Francis opened his first full day in Panama a day earlier with that message of hope formally welcoming tens of thousands of pilgrims to World Youth Day at a twilight pep rally at the capital's seaside park.
He urged them to be builders of bridges of encounter, not "builders of walls that sow fear and look to divide and box people in," a clear reference to the proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Nicole Winfield reported from Panama City.