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Nun working in prison Pope to visit: His words reassure

Photo of Sister Emma Zordan who runs a writing workshop at Rebibbia prison in Rome.

Provided by Sister Emma Zordan

I.Media - published on 03/28/24

“For us, prison has become a sacred place,” says Sister Emma Zordan, who volunteers at the Rebibbia prison, where the Pope will be celebrating Holy Thursday.

This Thursday, March 28, 2024, at 4:00 p.m. Pope Francis will visit the women’s section of the Rebibbia prison complex in Rome to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. He will meet with female prisoners, nine years after visiting the men’s section of this prison also on a Holy Thursday. On that occasion, the Pope washed the feet of several inmates, in memory of what gesture Jesus did for his disciples shortly before his arrest and crucifixion. 

Sister Emma Zordan has been volunteering for 10 years in a section of this prison that houses male inmates serving long sentences. The 82-year-old member of the Congregation of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ runs a writing workshop for the prisoners.

She spoke to I.MEDIA about how beneficial the Pope’s closeness to prisoners is.

Photo of Sister Emma Zordan who runs a writing workshop at Rebibbia prison in Rome.

During his pontificate, Pope Francis has often stressed the importance of not forgetting those on the margins of society. Do you feel encouraged in your mission by the Pope’s words?

Sister Emma Zordan: It is truly his words that encourage us, especially when he says to us volunteers: “You are signs of hope against the throwaway culture.” It’s precisely this continuous invitation to make our work in prison a sign of love and mercy, that breaks down the walls of indifference.

For us, prison has become a sacred place. A place to respect and love. A place where there is a wounded and devastated humanity but with a desire to regain the dignity lost through crime. It has become for me a home that I leave at the end of the writing workshop, with regret and a lot of nostalgia. Because prison is not just made up of gray, dull walls, but of people left alone and abandoned, who above all need to be listened to and welcomed. The Pope has repeatedly asked us volunteers to be “crafters of mercy,” “credible witnesses of God’s forgiveness,” and to bear in mind that everyone makes mistakes in life. 

I like to recall how one inmate in a speech said: “I am no longer the crime, the crime is there and remains, but I am a changed person, although in my life I will always have before me that blood that I have caused to be shed.”

These words moved me and I repeat them at every meeting. 

Do you think the Pope’s attention and words have an effect on prisoners?

Sister Emma Zordan: Yes, I would say that the words he says when he enters a prison are meaningful and reassuring for the inmates. He says things like, “Why them and not me?” or, “I’m a sinner like you. Who am I to judge you?”

We can all make mistakes. It is exactly these words that give them hope that nothing is lost. That the Lord will not look at their crime. Unfortunately, society — at least the society I meet — condemns, with words like: “They have to rot, throw away the keys.” This is a wound for me. One has to get to know prison in order not to judge, because there is an untold suffering in there. 

The Pope already visited Rebibbia on Holy Thursday in 2015. What do you think was the impact of this visit? 

Sister Emma Zordan: I work in a different section to the one the Pope visited then, but on that occasion I was sent by management to participate in the visit. Pope Francis was welcomed by a jubilant crowd. I remember him inviting the prisoners to always look to Jesus, who never disappoints and never tires of loving us, forgiving us, and embracing us. 

It was an intense moment, with prisoners clasping the Pope’s hands tightly as he passed by, kissing and hugging them, and weeping with emotion. I too shook his hand on that occasion. 

The Pope’s visit had an impact, as it generated a great deal of enthusiasm in the different sections of the prison. The inmates pay close attention to his visits. It’s as if the Pope looks them in the eye and says to them personally: “Be calm, you’ll get through this, keep your hope, don’t lose it.”

What is the atmosphere like at the women’s section of the prison ahead of the Pope’s visit on Thursday? 

Sister Emma Zordan: I don’t work in the women’s section where the Pope will be coming. I only know about it through the letters I sometimes receive from certain mothers who have a family member in the part of the prison where I work.

On the occasion of the Pope’s visit, one mother wrote to me: “Sister, here I feel as if I don’t exist. The visit of the Pope, the highest symbol of spirituality, is a great thing for me. The mere possibility of meeting his gaze makes me feel free from the chains that oppress and suffocate me.

What moves you in your encounters with prisoners? 

Sister Emma Zordan: The prisoners I work with are of all ages and origins, some very young, but also many who are jailed for life. The prisoners show their humanity, solidarity and understanding, something you rarely find outside the prison walls. I am positively impressed by their way of acting.

I’m struck, for example, by their ability to make encounters pleasant with jokes. Or their creativity in finding ways to alleviate the sadness of some of their sad or depressed fellow inmates. Or as well their resilience in the face of so much injustice and hardship, their patience in enduring prohibitions, which seem to always be increasing.

The hardest thing about working in prison is seeing their rights being trampled, and not being able to do anything about it. Sometimes you try, but you’re reminded of your role. How many benefits provided by prison regulations are ignored or not granted, to the great disappointment of our brothers, but also of us volunteers, who know their efforts and commitments. The State should be more present.

Why did you start volunteering with prisoners? 

Sister Emma Zordan: I started by chance, responding to an invitation from a nun who was already working in the prison. I then felt a strong calling to do something for these brothers too. 

When I lived in Rome, I went there every day, so much so that they would say to me: “Why don’t you get a cell and stay with us?” Since my congregation transferred me to Latina [a city an hour away from Rome, editor’s note] six years ago, I only go there on Saturdays. It’s a precious Saturday that I dedicate with enthusiasm, and I go with a great desire to meet these brothers. 

Then during the week, in addition to taking care of the things that concern my religious community, I look at the inmates’ writings. I have to look them over, to then present them to them and discuss with them what they have written.

How did the writing workshop you run with inmates come about, and how does it work? 

Sister Emma Zordan: As soon as I entered the prison, I was struck by the way most of the inmates went about their day, without any sense at all, almost always with their heads down. 

The lack of work and study activities prompted me to launch the creative writing workshop. Every Saturday, we gather around a table and talk about life in prison, different problems and what’s closest to their hearts. The stories move me, and I listen with great respect, welcoming their tears. 

In each one, there’s a story, there’s a heart, there’s dreams, that have been shattered by their crime. There are stories of discrimination, misery, and poverty. So I invite them to put down on paper their lives, made up of so much suffering, regret, disappointment and anger towards what they’ve done. For some, it’s not easy to tell their story; they find it hard to express their emotions and feelings, so they need many private meetings and a great deal of listening. The number of participants varies, as they are sometimes busy, but at least 20 come and go. 

What do you do with these writings? 

Sister Emma Zordan: Last year, we produced a new book, our seventh [“Ristretti nell’indifferenza,” meaning “confined in indifference,” published by Iacobellieditore and prefaced by Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, editor’s note]. All these books bring together the testimonies of prisoners according to different themes that we choose depending on the moment they are living through.

The Pope has received all the books we have published. I had the opportunity to give him the previous one, “Non Tutti Sanno,” [meaning “not everyone knows,” published by the Vatican Publishing House in 2021 after the pandemic, editor’s note]. My satisfaction is precisely in seeing the joy of the inmates at seeing their own efforts encapsulated in a book. 

Holy WeekInterviewsPope FrancisRome
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