Francis: A Pope for Gang Members?

 

Dear Pope Francis,
I think you are a humble man.
When you read this letter you will have washed the feet of other kids like me.
I am writing this letter because you give me hope.
I know one day with people like you us kids
won’t be given sentences that will keep us in prison
for the rest of our lives.
I pray for you. Don’t forget us.

“Don’t forget us.” These are the words of a young Los Angeles gang member writing from Juvenile Hall of Los Angeles County. According to Vatican Radio, Francis has received many such letters, some of them coming from youth involved in the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative run by Father Mike Kennedy. Interestingly, the Pontiff recently wrote back to one of the youths, providing a personal response to a young many named Carlos Adrian Vazquez Jr.

“Know that the Holy Father is thinking of you and praying for you” wrote Francis, adding as is his custom, “And please remember to pray for me, because I greatly need your prayers.”

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As one might imagine, the letter from Francis made quite an impression. “It gives me a lot of pride because it’s a message from God, that we are all humans, and he gives us hope that God wants all of us to be equal and we all commit mistakes and we can get up and continue” said Vazquez.

Interestingly, there may be more to the Pope’s letter than merely a symbolic gesture. (Not that symbolic gestures don’t matter. They can have enormous weight and cultural impact, as the Holy Father has shown perhaps more convincingly than anyone else in recent years.) Recently, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, a man not generally considered to be progressive, issued a Pastoral Letter called “I See Violence and Strife in the City” arguing that El Salvador’s current violence “has roots that can be traced back to colonial days.” Although I have not yet read the letter (it clocks in at a hefty 100 pages), a letter by Carlos Colorado, passed on to me by a friend, summarized the letter as essentially arguing that the current violence, including and especially the violence of which gang members, has its roots in unequal economic and social structures as well as the impunity of the civil war years, and that this violence cannot be effectively addressed until those larger issues of inequality and impunity are dealt with openly and in a lasting way.

Furthermore, in an article by CRUX magazine, Colorado suggests that Francis’s strong backing of the Romero legacy and his outspoken support for social justice probably help to explain the tone of the letter, which, while clearly leaving the door open for law enforcement to punish perpetrators of violent crime including gang members, makes every effort to call attention to the injustices that feed the violence. Colorado ends his article this way:

Although Escobar cites Romero for his inspiration, he relies on Francis for much of the substance of his Letter, citing Evangelii Gaudium, the Aparecida document (issued by the 2007 Latin American bishops’ conference, the principal drafter of which was the future pope), Laudato Si’, Misericordiae Vultus and the Santa Marta sermons—all by Pope Francis.

The letter contains numerous Francis nuggets, including criticism of a “throw-away culture,” the yearning for a “culture of encounter,” and, of course, an emphasis on mercy.

In El Salvador, the Romero legacy seems to fuse seamlessly with the Francis Effect.

 

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