This article features the Congregation at Termini Prison; a place that, for Romans and non-Romans alike, corresponds to the central station of the city of Rome, but here, many years before it was built, there was a prison.
Although caring for prisoners is not, historically, one of the main charisms of the Society of Jesus, it was nevertheless provided in several cities, by individual Jesuits. Even today there are Jesuits who devote part of their apostolate to prisoners: through confessions or spiritual assistance given within the places of detention.
Prison in the Modern Age
In the Old Regime, assistance to prisoners was entrusted to a number of confraternities, congregations of lay and religious people, whose task was to assist prisoners spiritually and materially, bringing them food, clothing and everyday goods. The State in fact did not maintain the prison population directly, but guaranteed assistance indirectly.
The Papal State guaranteed subsidies to the confraternities, through specific motu proprio of the Pontiff, cardinal protections, the recognition of private initiatives and the presence of professionals in charge of periodically visiting the prisoners and reporting on them: the poor people’s lawyers, the custodians, the tax lawyer, procurators.
From the Carceri Nuove to San Michele, from the Carceri delle Mantellate to the ‘Savelli’ prisons, Rome’s prison population was large and it was not uncommon to live in prison for a time, especially for debt issues.
In Rome, the saying is still well known that if one does not cross the step leading to the Regina Coeli prison, the prison located in the centre of the city, at least once, one cannot call oneself a Roman.
Jesuits and prison care
The case of the congregation we are dealing with, however, is different. The congregation was in fact formed by the prisoners themselves who were assisted by the Jesuits. Their apostolate is recounted in a diary written from 1857 until Easter 1870. Through a few passages we learn more about this ‘minor’ apostolate of the Society and the prison reality of the time.
The Jesuits who cared for the prisoners lived mainly in the exercise house of St. Eusebius, which was also used as a house for the Third Probation.
The congregation was established by Fr Castaldi and dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, it was housed in several rooms where the congregants and, separately, the aspiring congregants met, there was also a hospital for prisoners. The congregation consisted of the prisoners themselves, who could apply for membership.
In addition to the chapel and a few rooms, an additional room for work and a library were at their disposal.
In the diary, the compiler several times recommends that at least three Jesuits visit the prisons, because of the amount of confessions to be heard, and that they always be present on Sundays, also for the catechesis of the prisoners. Sometimes the Jesuits organise a sung mass, during which the congregants themselves perform, and the fathers give them a small snack.
The source that helps us reconstruct the spiritual activity in prison is the diary of the Congregation, which contains some letters, kept in the Roman Province Fund together with the diaries of the St. Eusebius Exercise House.
From a letter sent by Fr Melandri to the Provincial of the time, Fr Ugo Molza, we know that every Saturday after lunch, two Jesuits would go to the prison to hear the confessions of those who wished to do so; on religious holidays there were four Jesuits who performed this apostolic service, which was particularly in demand at Christmas or Easter.
On Sundays after lunch, novices also arrived to help the fathers with the catechesis of the prisoners in the hospital.
P. Melandri wrote in his letter to the Provincial: “Your Reverence understands well that when dealing with unhappy prisoners it is necessary to pity them very much in their miseries and to listen many times more to their laments than to their sins and to help them with the Crucifix and as far as possible with human means”.
Ending the letter he adds “I beg Your Reverence to recommend to those who will go to the prisons to use great patient charity, and not to disgust the keepers as much as possible.
The bath of Castel S. Angelo
In our archive there is also another document concerning the assistance to prisoners imprisoned in Castel S. Angelo, where some Jesuits were also imprisoned during the period of the suppression of the Order. Here the Jesuits had been assisting some military prisoners since 1839, providing spiritual assistance and taking care of the confessions of those condemned to death.