September 28, 2015

On that Photo of the Pope and a Prisoner Holding Hands in Philadelphia


 If you aren’t Catholic, it might be hard to understand why, now fifteen years into the twenty-first century, multitudes still gather along the road just to catch a glimpse—maybe even to touch the garment—of a man who embodies the pinnacle of a third century religion. It is of course a truism at this point to identify the long robes, sashes, and ropes of Catholic hierarchy as a curious aesthetic holdover from medieval Europe, so it stands to reason how the whole business of being blessed by the touch of a mere mortal might seem out of sync with the times.

As one who grew up in a Protestant church, where an ecclesiastical touch of the hand is reserved only for ritual induction of ordained preachers and missionaries, I should confess that this photograph of Pope Francis shaking hands with a Philadelphia prisoner—probably more than any other image from the Pope’s US visit—has me second-guessing supposed differences between back then and now. Stylistic conventions for the sleeve have clearly changed over time, but from a closer look at the artwork, the fire of Dante’s inferno still rages on the convict’s body. More than just strong symbolic pairing, flames of torment and a golden cross on the finger of Francis suggest that at this historical moment we still cling willingly to the trappings of gods and demons, saints and sinners. If the photograph invites a contemporary read on heaven and hell, then the central claim of this image is that the U.S. system of mass incarceration institutionalizes a modern-day culture of damnation. May God have mercy on our souls.

So, yes, extend a helping hand for the man going down in flames. And yet, with gentleness in the Pope’s grip reciprocated, what we’re seeing—and what the Pope’s visit to Philadelphia’s correctional facility is all about—is less Last Judgement and more Sistine Chapel: sometimes the ultimate act of grace is simply to reach across the divide and make contact.

Certainly that gesture of grace is part of why Pope Francis’s visit has shaken up the story line in US politics. The art of compromise just doesn’t play well politically these days, as if “reaching out to the other side” is just one step away from a deal with the devil.

— by Philip Perdue

photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters. caption: Pope Francis shakes hands with an inmate as he meets with prisoners at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

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Philip Perdue
See other posts by Philip here.

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