Carlos Adrian Vasquez was only 16 when he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 11 years in jail beginning in a juvenile delinquent correctional institution and then transferred to an adult prison.

Dropping out of school when he was just 15, Carlos joined a gang both for acceptance and security. In spite of the fact that he had devoted and hard-working parents, he would stay away for days and weeks and steadily lost all connection with his family. The consequences kept worsening with every passing day.

Repeatedly he would join his gang in violent fights with rival gangs. And on one such occasion, a rival was killed. Carlos had nothing to do with the murder, but he was present when it happened and was convicted of manslaughter and incarcerated.

This drove the unfortunate young man to desperation, so that he even contemplated taking his own life. One day he felt himself touched by the hand of God. An inaudible voice seemed to say to him, “I have carved you on the palm of my hand; you are mine!”

Wonder of wonders! Carlos decided to write a personal letter to Pope Francis. Often he had seen the Sovereign Pontiff on television and was captivated by his humility, his charm, his beaming smile, and his large and all-embracing arms reaching out to people, as though each and every one of them was close to his paternal heart. In particular, he saw Pope Francis demonstrate a fatherly compassion for the inmates during his recent trip to Mexico, where one prisoner gave him a wooden carving of the Crucifixion.

And so, he sat down and did just that – he wrote a letter to the Holy Father, telling him how very sorry he was for what he had done. Humbly and earnestly he pleaded for forgiveness and expressed his firm resolve to turn over a new leaf. And to his stunned disbelief, Pope Francis wrote him a personal reply.

This is what the Good Shepherd wrote:

“Dear Carlos! May the peace of Jesus Christ be with you!

  I was pleased to receive your recent letter. This is the Jubilee Year of Mercy. I pray that as you and your fellow residents celebrate the opening of the Holy Door, you may be filled with peace and hope.

 I want you to know, Carlos, that I am thinking of you and praying for you. And please remember to pray for me, because I greatly need your prayers.”

 Carlos sat speechless as he re-read that heart-warming letter from none other than the Sovereign Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. “I couldn’t believe it,” he remarked, “I didn’t think that the Pope would write to someone who’s behind bars.” Carlos is now 18 and this is his frank confession: “Our Holy Father gave me a lot of hope and I now know that there are people, like the Pope, who still have not given up on us. I know I’ve made mistakes and have hurt people. For this I am truly sorry. But what I’ve learned in the two years and five months that I’ve been imprisoned is that in hurting people, I was hurting myself, too.”

Like the Prodigal Son in the Gospels, Carlos next wrote a letter of sincere apology to the relatives of the young man who was killed in that violent brawl. These are his words: “I ask them to forgive me and I told them that no words of mine would ever give back the life I destroyed. It is my hope that someday they will forgive me for my crime. I just ask for their forgiveness. Hereafter I want to live the life that my victim didn’t have a chance to enjoy. And I shall always strive to do good.” Thanks to Pope Francis, Carlos went on to say, “If society does not forgive me, I know for certain that God will forgive my sins.”

Presently Carlos and a group of other prisoners belong to a group presided over by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Michael Kennedy, who is working with them to help them rebuild their lives and their future.

And this is how Carlos concluded his letter to Pope Francis: “How I wish that the world would be filled with more love, compassion, forgiveness and mercy! As an outcast of society, I want the world to see us for who we truly are – human beings like everybody else. But we all can rise again like a Phoenix. I will become a leader someday like Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai. Thank you for your loving and your merciful example to all of us!”