As soon as the phone rang my heart began to race. Something told me this would not be a regular phone call.
“Hello,” I said, hesitantly.
“Father,” a woman began to speak, “this is a miracle. My cousin wants to see a priest,” she exclaimed. “I have been praying for this day for years. Can you visit him?”
“Ok,” I said, somewhat cautiously. “What kind of visit is he looking for? Does he want to go to confession, is he sick, or does he just want to speak with a priest?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” she said. “But this is a miracle.”
“Well then, I would be happy to visit him,” I said, “Where does your cousin live?”
“Well,” she said, followed by a brief pause, “he is in prison.”
As a priest, I thought, I have seen and heard it all. After hearing thousands of confessions and spending many hours in spiritual direction with people, I find it difficult to be shocked or surprised by what anyone says or does. I had recently told a friend, that for me, as a priest, there are no more surprises. Yet after I hung up the phone with this woman, I began to realize that perhaps I was wrong.
It is not uncommon of course for a priest to visit people in prison. However, in my years as a priest, prison had been one of the places I have never been sent before. Perhaps like most people, I had an image in my mind, not only what prison was like, but what the prisoners themselves were like. Unfortunately, I imagined prison to be a place filled with hardened criminals who had no concern for people. I supposed that the majority of the people in prison had little if any faith in God and most, I believed, were not interested in the spiritual life. There was a part of me, I am ashamed to admit, that was wondering if I was wasting my time by making this visit.
As I arrived at the prison, I stood outside of my car and stared in wonder at what looked like a giant fortress. After spending almost thirty minutes trying to find the entrance, I entered the visitor’s section only to spend another thirty minutes going through security. Finally, I was allowed to enter a large room, which looked like a dining hall, where several other inmates were visiting with their own guests. At each corner of the room stood several armed guards, surveying the room and checking to see if each visitor was wearing the proper pass that allowed him into the designated area.
I sat down at the table assigned to me by the guard and waited. After a long wait, the man I was asked to visit appeared and sat down at my table. He was not anything like I expected. Rather than shaking my hand, he immediately hugged me and expressed how grateful he was that I would take the time to visit him. As he began to speak, I was shocked at his demeanor. Instead of being angry, rude and tough like I expected, he was quiet, calm and polite.
“Father,” he said, with a tear beginning to form in his eye, “in prison I met Jesus Christ.”
He paused, while waiting for me to respond. “I wasn’t expecting that to be your opening line,” I said, while smiling at him. We both laughed so hard that we caught the attention of the guards who looked at us with suspicion. After regaining our composure he spent the next few moments sharing with me how he ended up in prison and all that had occurred to him during his time there. As he finished, he looked down at the ground for a few seconds and appeared lost in deep thought.
“Father, I have accepted God’s mercy and I believe in his love for me despite the terrible things I have done. I am hungry Father and I want to know more. How do I pray? Can you teach me about the Bible? Why are the Sacraments important? I looked at him in amazement. Immediately I thought of Jesus’ words to the centurion, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Mt 8:19).
I spent the next hour attempting to answer his questions. As I spoke he stared at me in awe, as if his life made sense for the first time. Occasionally, a tear rolled down his face, forcing me to fight back my own. Suddenly I realized that the man before me was not the person I had imagined him to be. Yes, he had done some horrible things and he deserved to be in prison. But now he was different. The power of God’s mercy had transformed this man into someone new, someone his friends, and especially those whom he hurt, probably would not recognize.
As I drove home that afternoon, I reflected on my conversation with this man and thought to myself, “This is what redemption looks like.” Redemption, after all, is not something we can do. Despite our good intentions and best efforts we always remain in need of a Savior. St. Paul reminds us, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…but “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
That man I met in prison is proof that redemption is possible. For years he had followed his own way, without any regard for a higher law. Rather than bring him the freedom he desired, his selfishness imprisoned him. Ironically, it was there, amid such darkness and pain, that the light of God’s mercy opened his eyes, removed his chains, and set him free.
+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR
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