An exceptional Christmas in a Milan prison

A letter from the San Vittore prison chaplain in Milan to the young people organising “Good inside and good outside”, an initiative through which 1500 boxes of panettone were collected and distributed to prison inmates, making it a much more genuine Christmas.

“They are young; they’re like a current: everybody sees their good number, but it is the wave that pushes them.  Whoever rides on the wave, travels far, without effort.” This is the beginning of the letter from Father Pietro Raimondi, chaplain of the San Vittore prison in Milan, where a group of young people of the Focolare Movement, on Christmas Eve, brought a breeze of warmth, living together with the inmates a “silent miracle of light”. The whole story begins with the youth having started to animate the Sunday Mass in the prison: a moving experience that left its mark. A few months before Christmas, they wanted to launch the initiative “Good inside and good outside”, with the challenge to succeed in collecting sufficient boxes of panettone (Christmas cake) for each cell of the prison. “The cell is the only home of the inmate,” write the Youth for a United World, “and therefore in every cell – that is in every home of the big city that is the prison of San Vittore – we want to bring about the atmosphere of Christmas.”

“It is they who come out with the ideas, the proposals, the best intuitions,” continues the chaplain. And whoever tells me that they are inconstant, and changing, I say that this is typical of liquid. But I add that liquid has a magic property: you cannot compress it. The pressure they exercise is enormous, they move mountains. They are young and they put pressure always inventing something new. Who listens to them is lucky and walks on water.”

“Today we took the boxes of panettone to San Vittore!” Now it is one of the young people who speaks. “We were a nice team: some of us unloaded from the vans, some filled the bags, some took them to the metal detector… there was work for all! Then four of us had the beautiful gift of being the ones to distribute the panettoni in the cells. It is impossible to describe the emotion when we stepped over the threshold of the cells, and gave the panettone to each inmate, and saw their joy and gratitude. For the first time after a long time they could see not only guards and their cell companions. And  so we experienced a different Christmas… a much more real one.”

“The generosity of adults often sediments in routine,” Father Pietro writes. He has seen many Christmases at San Vittore. “Even the donation of the panettone to the inmates risks being transformed into an institutional gesture. Always the same person makes the donation, with the same van, belonging to the same firm. And the mechanical gesture of distribution kills the momentum of the original initiative.”

“But these young people say to you “Well, why don’t we?” First they set a challenge to themselves and then to the whole world. They say, “We will not buy not even one box of panettone and we will not seek those who make a large donation. We will talk about the dark world  behind the perimeter walls. We will talk in the streets, in the schools, to friends and in families. We will talk about those who we do not care whether they are good or bad, guilty or innocent, but who certainly need a gesture of love.” Those gestures that are not an aid to fill a void, but something over and above.

And the response has been beyond all expectations. They aimed at distributing 450 panettoni, one for each cell. Soon they became 500, then 1000, and then 1400 and then they lost count. Today in prison, there were 1553 men and 96 women, without counting the personnel and operators. And it appears that everyone received a gift…” .

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