From a prison cell to the Pope’s altar
From the very start of his pontificate, the Pope has been eager to show his closeness to people in prison, through concrete gestures. His attention to prisoners, is in tune with predecessors such as John XXIII - who visited the inmates of the Regina Coeli prison in Rome just a few weeks after he was elected Pope – and Benedict XVI, whose meeting with inmates of Rome’s Rebibbia prison marked one of the most beautiful and moving moments of his pontificate.

Readers will recall that Francis chose to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, at the Casal del Marmo juvenile detention centre. He has also on many occasions – including on Twitter –  quoted chapter 25 of Matthews’ Gospel, in which Jesus says that whatever they do for the poor, the suffering, the hungry, the thirsty and the imprisoned, they do for him.

And now the story of 38-year old Argentinean, Gabriela Caballero, another inmate who has had direct contact with Francis. Gabriela prepared the Host for the Pope’s Masses in St. Martha’s House. She has been held in Unit 47 of the San Martín Penitentiary in Buenos Aires since 2010 and is serving a seven year prison sentence.

San Martín Penitentiary has 1300 detainees. Francis heard about Gabriela and her Host-making laboratory from the Bishop of San Isidro (Argentina), Mgr. Oscar Vicente Ojea , during breakfast last 16 July. “I delivered the letter and photographs of the laboratory which Gabriela had sent, to the Pope. Francis was impressed by the fact that this girl prepared the Host with which we celebrate Mass,” the prelate said. Francis “took the parcel to his apartment himself, without opening it,” the bishop went on to say. On 18 July, the Pope celebrated the first mass using some of these Hosts and on the 19th he personally wrote a brief letter of thanks to Gabriela. “What impressed me the most about Pope Francis’ letter was the part in which he says he is certain she is praying for him. I was struck by the fact that the Holy Father felt so sure about a person who is insecure having been deprived of her freedom. That one should feel certain about the prayers of a suffering person, is almost a paradox,” Bishop Ojeda pointed out.

In an interview Gabriela was able to give with her “guardian angel”, the prison priest, Fr. Jorge Garcia Cuerva, by her side, she recalled it was the priest who telephoned her to tell her the Pope had sent her a letter replying to her in person. “I know Mgr. Ojeda because he comes to see us often,” the woman said. “When I heard he was going to see the Pope I jumped at the chance to send the Pope some of our home-made Hosts and some photos of our laboratory,” she said.


In answer to journalist Daniel Rojas Delgado’s question about whether she expected a response from the Pope, Gabriela said: “I honestly didn’t expect him to reply. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I wrote a letter to the Pope…and my fellow inmates told me the Pope would reply. He replies to all letters. This Pope wants to reach out to everyone, everywhere. He wants to be close to people and we are the people…”

During the interview, Gabriela talked about the laboratory where she works with her fellow-inmates and stressed: “The machines and equipment we use are very old. They were lent to us by some nuns. Our Host is home-made because they are prepared using these iron tools. None of today’s digital equipment is used. The Host pieces come out in all shapes and sizes and then we cut them to size.” Going back to the Pope’s letter, she said: “It made me feel happy knowing that the letter was addressed only to me. In a place where I am deprived of my freedom and face many dark hours , it was nice surprise to read the words “Dear Gabriela”. It’s great to know that it’s possible to reach the Vatican from a prison cell.”

Here is what Francis wrote: “Dear Gabriela, Mgr. Ojeda gave me your letter. Thank you for your trust and for the Hosts. As of tomorrow I will celebrate Mass with these Hosts and I assure you that this moves me a great deal. Your letter made me reflect and so I will pray for you. It gives me joy and reassurance knowing that you pray for me. You will be close to me. Thank you once again for writing to me and for the photographs: I will keep them on my desk where I can look at them. May Jesus bless you and the Holy Virgin watch over you. Francis.

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