Stephen D. Miles

Stephen D. Miles

Educators regard capstone experiences as important instruments for student learning. Placed at the end of a curriculum, they offer a culminating experience that is designed to help students deepen and integrate their learning as a final preparation for effective engagement in the world. I cannot help but think of Pope Francis’ Sept. 27 visit to Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility as a capstone experience to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.

Coming as it did on the concluding day of that event, Francis seems to be inviting us to focus, deepen and integrate our reflection on the family in light of another priority of his pontificate, namely the call to mercy and solidarity. Informed by his teachings, I offer three lessons that I think Francis may be inviting us to learn.

First, the human family is one. Francis has assured prisoners across the globe that the church will never abandon them. They are her brothers and sisters, members of one human family, bound together by the love of God.

Our society’s criminal justice practices have conveyed a very different message to prisoners. Using the blunt instrument of mandatory sentencing laws, we have downplayed their distinct identities and have systematically sought to remove them from society.

On account of this approach to crime control, we now have, by far, the highest incarceration rate in the world and the highest juvenile detention rate among all democratic nations. We imprison people for crimes that may be addressed differently in other countries, and our prisoners typically serve longer sentences than their counterparts elsewhere.

Moreover, we have high recidivism rates due, in part, to our reluctance to invest in prisoner rehabilitation and reintegration. Our overall message to prisoners, then, has been that they are throwaway people, not our brothers and sisters.

Francis has decried the legalistic understanding of justice that underwrites our penal practices. Where justice is reduced to mere respect for law, judgment and separation of offenders become the principal ends of our response to crime, to the neglect of broader purposes like healing and restoration. Inspired by the biblical view of justice, Francis maintains that justice needs to be anchored within a vision of human solidarity and practiced in service of that end.

Thus beyond simply holding persons accountable to law, such justice would focus on restoring the offender and the community, and enabling both to progress toward greater fulfillment.

A justice of this kind would more nearly resemble the justice of God, which finds its wellspring in God’s love and which is ordered to our flourishing, both individually and communally. In God’s justice, punishment of the offender is not foregone, says Francis, but it is enveloped and surpassed “within an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.”

We are called, says Francis, to be agents of God’s merciful justice in the world. To do that we must recognize that we are one human family and live in light of that reality.

Second, families in distress have a special claim to our care. Francis’ visit to the CFCF included a meeting with inmates’ families. While we tend to think of prisoners as social nomads, Francis is reminding us that prisoners are, in fact, members of families. As is the case with any family that experiences a traumatic event, families of prisoners are seriously impacted by the incarceration of a loved one. The challenges they face can include emotional turmoil, financial stress, social isolation, relational difficulties, household instability and, where a parent is incarcerated, managing the increased risk of behavioral problems in children.

Unfortunately, the social support these families receive is often limited to the voluntary assistance of extended family or friends. Notwithstanding this, society depends on the family to be the principle support for someone who is released from prison, even though we do little to prepare it for that role.

Victims’ families deserve special attention, too. Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Catholic bishops observed that the needs and rights of victims typically take a back seat in our system’s state-against-the-perpetrator model. Since then, victims and their advocates have made great strides in securing opportunities for victim participation in the criminal justice process. All 50 states now allow some form of victim impact statement during sentencing proceedings. But victims’ needs extend beyond the need to face the offender in the courtroom. Victims also want to be able to put their lives back together, not simply in isolation but in the context of a community that works together to overcome the painful and harmful effects of crime. And in some instances, victims need more meaningful interaction with the offender than the prevailing model allows.

Francis’ attention to the familial and communal dimensions of crime offers support for a restorative model of justice that engages healing as a social process and reality. Such justice taps into the moral resources of the community to address not only the effects of crime but its causes as well. While those are many, they include factors that put pressures on families, including poverty, unemployment and poor educational opportunities, which can lead to higher risk for criminal behavior. Following Francis’ lead, we need to practice a preferential option for families in distress.

Third, Sunday is a day of solidarity. The family has an important social mission. In the language of the Catholic social tradition, the family is a vital cell of society, a community of love and solidarity where persons first learn the wisdom, values and virtues that are essential for every human society. Families are also important subjects in society, as the love on which they are founded naturally seeks to share itself with others. When a family directs this love outward — e.g., in service of the elderly, the poor, the lonely, or the refugee, or in some political activity that attends to human dignity — it becomes an important builder of solidarity in our world.

In our culture, family life is typically associated with private life. Perhaps because so many parents experience the more public world of work as demanding or dehumanizing, they approach family life as a kind of retreat from the world, a time and space set apart from society and its concerns to pursue personal interests and intimate relations.

For many families Sunday is the day for family time — a day of relaxation, recreation, collaboration on household projects, or just doing nothing. While time together as family is critically important, an overly privatized approach to family life can cultivate a compartmentalized view of reality that undermines the family’s ability to fulfill its social mission. If our homes become places that are shielded from situations of brokenness in our world, then they fail to prepare persons for commitment to the common good, and they deprive society of the healing and leavening influence of the family.

Francis maintains that the solidarity our world needs can only come if we develop new convictions, attitudes and forms of life. Toward that end, he calls for renewed attention to spiritual practices that can equip us with new vision and energies, including the celebration of Sunday.

Sunday, he proposes, is meant to be a day that heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world. This requires engaging the day in a way that fosters receptivity, gratitude, sharing, caring and solidarity. In the Christian life, the celebration of Sunday is centered on the Eucharist, “the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life.”

This great event uniquely binds the community with God and one another, and provides light and motivation for renewed engagement in the world. Thus, historically, the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist was connected with practices of loving concern for others, especially those most in need.  Sunday became, then, a day of solidarity, and its weekly celebration a transformative way of being that cultivates communion in our world.

It is noteworthy that Francis’ visit with inmates and their families took place on a Sunday. Later that day, he celebrated Mass with countless persons on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. On the closing day of the World Meeting of Families, then, Francis was living the Christian Sunday. And he’s inviting us — perhaps especially families — to do the same.


Stephen D. Miles is a professor of theology and chair of the Theology Department at Immaculata University.