Penitents, Prisoners and Pilgrims: Pope Francis meets youth up close

World Youth Day pilgrims take advantage of temporary confessionals set up at Rio park (CNS Photo/Tyler Orsburn).

RIO DE JANEIRO (CNS) -- Pope Francis spent the morning and early afternoon of July 26 with about two dozen young people from different countries and diverse backgrounds, in a range of encounters that illustrated his characteristic emphasis on inclusion and reconciliation.

The most dramatic meeting was the half hour he spent in the Rio de Janeiro archbishop's residence with eight young offenders from four area prisons.

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According to the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the six men and two women sat in a circle with the pope, Rio Archbishop Orani Tempesta, a judge and a lay minister who works with incarcerated youths.

The younger woman was especially emotional and talkative, Father Lombardi said. She sang a song she composed in honor of Pope Francis and read a letter she had written on behalf of her fellow prisoners.

The group presented the pope with a homemade rosary with Styrofoam balls for beads, and a cross inscribed with the slogan, "Candelaria never again," a reference to a 1993 massacre of eight young people near Rio's Candelaria church. The name of each victim was written on one of the rosary's beads.

Pope Francis prayed with the rosary, Father Lombardi said, repeating the phrases "Candelaria never again" and "no more violence, only love," and asked the prisoners to pray for him. He made no formal speech.

The pope stayed at the archbishop's residence for lunch, where he was joined by 12 young people -- six men and six women -- chosen by lot to represent all World Youth Day pilgrims. Two were from Brazil and two each came from the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Danielle Danowski, 27, of Brighton, Mich., who had been working in Rio since March as an English translator for World Youth Day, said the luncheon was "like talking with your good friends, but then you realize the pope's right there."

"Everyone was very nervous at first, we didn't know what to say," she said. "Everyone took a turn and was able to say what was on their minds or in their hearts."

The pope asked the group a series of questions -- "Why do you have good health? Why do you have food to eat?" -- that Danowski said brought many to tears.

Despite all the conversation, all those present finished the meal: rice with pumpkin, beef stuffed with provolone cheese, asparagus and passionfruit mousse for dessert.

Pope Francis' public schedule for the day began when he heard the confessions of five people -- three young Brazilian men, and young women from Italy and Venezuela in Rio's Boa Vista Park.

According to Father Lombardi, one of the penitents confessed in the traditional manner, speaking through a grate. The others knelt before the pope and told him their sins face to face.

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