Tuesday, February 28, 2012

40 Things #6: Mercy and Prison Ministries

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!***   

Many people don't want to hear about sin when it comes to sex, or convenient lies, or a little cheating on the IRS: the wisdom is that those things are one's own business, and religion has no place in them.  But when they hear about a child molester or someone who shoots and kills his pregnant wife, what is their response?  "I hope he burns in hell."

It's difficult to not have that sort of knee-jerk, horrified, disgusted response to people who commit heinous crimes.  The horror and injustice is mind-boggling.  I reflect the scandal that erupted at Penn State last November, and I think, how can this beHow can someone who (allegedly) made so many people's lives a living hell for so long still be breathing air? 

There is but one answer, and that is mercy.

Mercy, which God exercised when he called Saul, who persecuted Christians and threatened them with murder, to experience an incredible roadside conversion (Acts Chapter 9) and become Paul, apostle and greatest of the evangelists.

Mercy, which Jesus demonstrated when the "good" thief (who must have done something dreadful to be executed by crucifixion) asks Him to "remember me when you come into your Kingdom," and Jesus responds, "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:42-43).

Mercy, for which David begged God after he had sired an illegitimate child with Bathsheba and then killed her husband so he could marry her and appear magnanimous (2 Samuel 11):  "Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love; in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions." (Psalm 51 -- I'll resist my desire to copy the whole thing here, but I love it!)

I desire God's forgiveness for my sins with all my heart, and I believe that he will forgive me -- so why would I believe that he would not forgive another, no matter how grave his or her sin?  I believe that God loves me and always will, and that He loves everyone -- so why would I believe that he would stop loving someone who has committed a terrible crime?

And indeed, He does not.  Catholics consider visiting prisoners (Matthew 25:36) to be one of the corporal works of mercy (which I'll discuss more in another post).  Local dioceses have chaplains who minister at the correctional institutions within their geographic areas, and Masses are celebrated for prisoners who want to go to Mass.  Volunteers can go to these Masses, too.

Pope John Paul II visited Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to assassinate him, in prison.
I must admit that I have never been to a prison, not to visit anyone, and not for Mass.  But it is something I want to do someday.  I believe that all people, even those who, through their actions, have been cast off from society, need to know that they have worth because God loves them.

Two stories come to mind as I write this.  I was inspired by a story in the Word Among Us Catholic daily meditations magazine, written by a man who is serving a 25-year prison sentence.  He was hoping to find other Christians in prison when he began his sentence, and he found a Catholic man who invited him to Mass.  As he learned more about the faith, he decided to become Catholic himself, and he now reaches out to other inmates to show them Christ's love.

The other story I think of is one that brought me to tears about 2 years ago during a homily at Mass.  It concerns a man named Jim who was incarcerated at the state penitentiary that's about 15 minutes from where I live between 1947-1967.  He shot and killed his pregnant wife when he was 20 years old.  He ended up experiencing a profound conversion to Catholicism in prison, after volunteering to assist the prison chaplain in an attempt to earn early release (he often referred to God as "Slick," saying he'd beaten him at his own game), and became a Franciscan brother after his sentence.  Brother Jim then worked earnestly in prison ministry for many years, until his health would no longer permit it.  He passed away last year.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
--From Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice


  1. Thank you for sharing this. It's a beautiful post. I used to correspond with a man on death row in Maryland. I began writing to him when I was in college, when I met his sister at an anti-death penalty event.

    He told me in the first letter he wrote me that he was innocent. I told him I didn't care if he was or not. That's not why I chose to write with him. It's an experience which has left a lasting imprint on me.

    Please pray for him if you can. His name is Vernon.

  2. That is a very powerful story, Sarah. You can be assured that Vernon will be in my prayers.