Last week I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to greet Pope Francis as a representative of Pact. I was in Rome for the Centesimus Annus Conference – an international group that works to promote the social teachings of the Catholic Church.

Our group was given what is called a ‘private audience’ in the Vatican. The Pope spoke to us about the importance of community where we are ‘imagining and working for a future where each person can find his or her place and have room in the world.’ He revisited some of the key themes on which he has written and spoken so powerfully – our responsibility to support the most vulnerable in society, protect the natural environment on which humanity depends for its very survival, and defend those forced to migrate in search of safety. It was inspiring. Despite his physical frailty, the 86-year-old Pope wanted to meet each of us. I joined the line.

Support and blessings for Pact's work

When it was my turn, in what I am sure was terrible Italian, I asked Pope Francis to bless a beautiful silver image of Mary Untier of Knots for those in prison in England and Wales. Pope Francis, who washes the feet of prisoners on Maundy Thursday, smiled when he understood what I was saying and raised his hand to touch and bless the picture. I asked him to pray for all of us who work with people in prison too. He indicated that he would do just that.

I hope the image will be especially meaningful for those affected by the criminal justice system – and those striving to make a difference in it - since it shows Mary, the Mother of Jesus, untying the seemingly intractable ‘knots’ in our lives.

It is hard for me to put into words what this symbolic and spiritual support from the Pope for Pact’s work means for me personally. I still feel a little overwhelmed. His concern for people in prison is well known, and to bring back a physical symbol of that care to prisoners in England and Wales, of all faiths and none, is humbling.

A moment worth sharing

Pact is 125 years old this year. We have been too busy to plan a celebration so far. But this feels like a moment in our history that is worth sharing. I hope it will be special news for our staff, volunteers, friends and our many generous supporters. And, of course, for all our prison chaplains who do such vital work. For Catholic people, the personal support of the Pope is obviously hugely significant. But I would hope that others who are part of the Pact community and who admire him as a world leader and as a person, regardless of their faith, will also feel touched and encouraged by this news. 

As we go about our work and through our links with chaplaincy, Pact’s Faith in Action team will bring the image and Pope Francis’ blessing to men and women inside and our Catholic and Christian supporters and friends. For those who are strengthened by their Christian faith as they journey through the criminal justice system, we hope the image and its story will enable them to feel a greater closeness to the whole Church and, through the blessing of Pope Francis, to Jesus himself.  

Andy Keen-Downs 
Pact CEO

Header image: Pact CEO Andy Keen-Downs meets Pope Francis © Vatican Media