The young inmates in a Los Angeles County juvenile detention facility are an ocean apart from the most powerful man in the world's largest church. But this week, they were linked in an Easter Week rite of healing and humility 2 millennia old.
Pope Francis chose to celebrate Holy Thursday by sinking to his knees to wash and kiss the feet of a dozen youth inmates in an Italian juvenile jail — breaking from the tradition of performing that ritual with priests in the ornate cathedrals of Rome. One day earlier, he urged Roman Catholics to "step outside ourselves … in search of the one lost sheep … those who long for a sympathetic ear, those in need of comfort or help."
In Sylmar Juvenile Hall in the San Fernando Valley, the pope's fellow Jesuits heeded that call by washing the feet of young inmates, replicating an act that Jesus is said to have done for his disciples to demonstrate God's summons to humble service. The Jesuits in black shirts and clerical collars knelt before the youths in standard-issue gray sweats as they poured cool water over their feet and dried them, drawing both smiles and solemn looks.
Then the youths read letters to the pope, asking for healing and blessings. They confessed to mistakes that hurt others. And they asked for a second chance in a nation that hands out the longest prison sentences in the world for juveniles.
An inmate named Michael told the pope that he had witnessed murder and pain growing up in a "jungle of gangs and drugs and violence."
"It is hard to be young and surrounded by darkness," he wrote. "Pray for me that one day I will be free and be able to help other youth like you do."
The letters were sent to Rome, where Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said in an email Thursday that Pope Francis would "surely read them with profound gratitude and he will pray for all the young people that are in the Juvenile Hall, and all that are in prisons."
The decision to hold Holy Thursday services with young prisoners in Rome and Sylmar exemplified the particular Jesuit calling for "faith that does justice," said Father Michael Kennedy, who ministers to inmates and their families for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Jesuits in his Society of Jesus religious order. The pope's visit to the Casal del Marmo juvenile jail for his first papal Holy Thursday service electrified social justice advocates across the globe, Kennedy said.
"He's going to places nobody wants to go to be with people who are forgotten," Kennedy said of the pope. "It's really shifting the paradigm of who we need to embrace and who is important in God's eyes."
In keeping with the Jesuit call to promote spirituality and social action, the hourlong service at Sylmar featured more than Gospel readings and prayers. A Catholic lay chaplain also shared information about current state legislation to aid juvenile offenders and the stark contrast in youth sentences between the United States and Italy. The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole, according to Javier Stauring, co-director of the archdiocese's Office of Restorative Justice.
Stauring told the gathering that Italy's longest sentence for juveniles is 26 years and that children younger than 14 cannot be imprisoned. In the United States, Stauring said, children as young as 10 are locked away.
But the political climate toward juvenile offenders is shifting, he said. Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions have restricted harsh sentences for children and an increasing amount of brain research is showing that impulse control is not fully formed in youths.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that allows juvenile offenders who are sentenced to life without parole to petition for a review of their sentences after serving 15 years. This year, advocates are pushing another bill, SB 260 by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), that would require such reviews for other juvenile offenders tried as adults — some of whom are serving prison sentences of hundreds of years.
Scott Sanders, Sylmar superintendent for the Los Angeles County Probation Department, said the county's approach to juvenile offenders is also changing, with greater emphasis on mental health services, family therapy and education.
"We try to do anything we can to touch hearts and minds and see what can make a difference," he said. "The foot-washing is a great way to show the kids that it's not just about you, it's about doing something for someone else."
The service, held Wednesday evening to account for the time difference in linking it with Rome, seemed to have touched at least some of the youths. One began to cry as he read his letter to the pope. Another, Luis, said having his feet washed was humbling, marking the best moment in his 13 months of incarceration at Sylmar.
"I haven't felt renewed here until today," he said. "I feel my relationship with God is growing and I'm beginning to have more hope in myself."