In an interview today with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Pope Francis revealed that he is following the example of a former Vatican secretary of state in making his ministry to the imprisoned a priority.
The pope again this year celebrated today’s Mass of the Last Supper in a prison, washing the feet of 12 inmates.
“As priests and bishops, we should always be serving,” the pope told La Repubblica. “As I said in the visit to a prison that I made the first Holy Thursday after my election, this is a duty that I carry in my heart.”
His focus on prison ministry, the pope revealed, has been reinforced by the example of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, who died in 1998.
In 1979, Pope John Paul II appointed the cardinal as Secretary of State, following his many years working in the Vatican and in Vatican diplomacy.
“The example of Agostino Casaroli taught me a lot,” Francis explained in the interview published today. “He died in 1998, after having been a cardinal and Secretary of State. As a priest, he carried out his ministry for years in the juvenile prison of Casal del Marmo.
Francis continued: “Every Saturday night, he would disappear. ‘He’s resting,’ people would say. He arrived [to the prison] by bus, with his briefcase, and he stayed there to hear the young people’s confessions and to play with them. They called him Don Agostino — nobody knew who he was.
“When John XXIII received him in audience after his first visit to the countries of Eastern Europe on a diplomatic mission in the midst of the Cold War, after the meeting, the pope asked him, ‘Tell me something. Do you still visit those kids?’
“‘Yes, Your Holiness,’
“‘I ask you a favor: Never abandon them.’ This was the counsel left to Casaroli by the Good Pope, who died a few months later.”