Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Prison ministry is in the life of the Church an explicit mandate of Christ.
Chapter 25 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew presents what Pope Francis calls “the protocol that the Lord will apply on the day of our judgment.” In it, He explicitly tells us “I was in prison and you visited me.” To visit the incarcerated is a corporal work of mercy.
That Gospel passage ought to challenge us and move us to action. There is something particularly noticeable in those words of the Lord. He does not say “I was in prison while innocent…” Rather, He says “I was in prison…” That statement speaks to us of the intrinsic dignity of our human nature created in the image and likeness of God. Christ enters into solidarity with every single human being, absolutely everybody. There are objectively immoral and reprehensible actions. They are abominations. Yet, even the worst criminal must be treated with the respect his or her humanity demands. We, Christians, also have the serious obligation to carry out corporal and spiritual works of mercy, because we recognize the humanity of Christ in our common humanity.
Before I started my seminary formation, I used to volunteer with other Catholics visiting inmates in federal and state prisons. In one of them, I facilitated a prayer and meditation group. Many of the persons in that group had been sentenced to life in prison for different crimes. I vividly remember one day when I got to the prison, while we were preparing for the activities planned for that week, a person in my group told me that the case had been referred to the parole board. The inmate was very excited. Since I knew that not too long ago another person in that prison had attempted suicide and fearing that this inmate could despair if the parole board denied the request, I tried to lower expectations, I said I was overjoyed too, but I would urge caution because the outcome was uncertain and although I would pray for a favorable answer, there was always the possibility that the request for parole be denied. The inmate immediately replied to me: “I know. I am aware of that. Yet if I am denied parole, Romans 8:28.” I did not understand what that meant. I did not know the verse by heart, so I asked what that meant. The person answered: “Romans 8:28: Everything is for the good of those who love the Lord.”
When I got home later that day, I picked up my Bible and looked up the quote. It was accurate. It says: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.”
What this inmate wanted to tell me was that having found God in jail, she trusted in his love. She trusted in his goodness. Should parole not be granted she was confident that if she remained in communion with the Lord everything was going to work out for her good despite the disappointment, the logical sadness and the objective fact that she would remain in jail.
From that day on, that quote from the Letter to the Romans is engraved in my mind. It is chapter 8, verse 28 the very same that appears in the second reading for this Sunday. I often tell it to myself because it helps me to remain faithful in the face of difficulties, apparent defeat, suffering and any other manifestation of the cross.
We ought never forget that beyond any setbacks, any difficulties, injustice, lies, corruption, sickness and pain that are real and affect our daily lives, as evidenced by the pandemic; the love of God is a constant in our lives too. It is Him who has the last Word. That Word is love. That Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
As St. Paul also states in the very same chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans. Nobody and nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of Christ. It is only our sin that estranges us from Him. Yet, even then, as St. Paul tells Timothy, although we abandon Him or turn our backs on Him; He remains faithful to us because he cannot deny Himself.
It is obvious that God does not desire injustice, He loathes crimes, abuses of power, lies, greed or evil in any of its manifestations. However, given the fact that there is evil in the world, considering that human beings reject His love and are obstinate in our sinfulness; God does not allow it to carry the day in history. Additionally, he constantly offers us all the help we need to do good and to overcome the effects of the sin of others in our lives, to turn back to Him.
There are numerous examples in salvation history.
Consider for example the case of Joseph, the son of Jacob. It is crystal clear that God did not wish for his brothers to sell him as a slave. However, given that abominable action, God found a way to draw a greater good. Joseph becomes a kind of great vizir in Pharaoh’s court at a time of drought and famine. He ends up saving the life of those who hurt him. That is the way Joseph himself interprets the meeting with his brothers narrated in chapter 45 of the book of Genesis. He has suffered a lot. The evil perpetrated by his brothers is real. When he is reunited with them, he weeps. But the fact that Joseph had been in Egypt ends up saving their lives and that of their father. On top of it all there is a family reunion before the death of Jacob.
Of course, the most eloquent of all examples of the power of God to do good even in the presence of evil is the Passion of Christ which becomes the threshold of his glorious resurrection. Jesus Christ suffers an ominous death, a huge injustice. He suffers in his body what nobody could suffer and at the time of his death, He is abandoned by everybody but his mother and one disciple. Yet, He rises from the dead and in doing that destroys the power of sin and death bringing all of creation to its fulfillment in God.
We must never forget that God does not wish evil, he does not wish death. In the face of these realities, he does not remain indifferent. His Divine Providence is at work so that goodness, truth and justice may flourish. We must do everything in our power to remain in truth and goodness. We must cooperate with grace. In the face of the disappointments of life and any other tribulation, when we encounter the cross, we must strive to remain in communion with Christ. If we do that, even the difficulties become a source of redemption and life. That is the message of Romans 8:28. Let us always remember it. It will lead us to a greater commitment to goodness and truth. It will bring us inner peace. It will help us to grow in faith, hope and charity. We will deepen our communion with Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead. The One who lives forever to intercede for us.
Fr. Roberto M. Cid