I don’t believe I ever had as much gratitude for the generous mercy of God as when I started volunteering at the prison.
Over the years, I have perhaps struggled with accepting that I cannot disappoint God or realizing the unplumbable depths of God’s particular love for me. But, in many ways, I never felt that I strayed too far from God. I never stopped going to Mass or turned away from the faith. In college, I was delving into my faith when many of my peers were shaking the Church’s dust from their feet. So I never really had to confront the question of “Can God forgive me for this?” and I say that without any pride knowing that I fail in many, many ways.
Standing before men in prison, though, I am encountering some men who have committed truly heinous crimes. There are men in for drug charges or robbery or embezzlement. And then I’m with men who committed crimes against women and children, in a variety of circumstances and situations. I also find myself with men who have murdered others or conspired to murder people or have attempted to murder others. Regardless their crimes, I am able to confidently extend the mercy of God to them.
There are times when I am in the disciplinary unit, talking with the men cell-front with a couple of other volunteers, and I find myself filled with profound awe over the gift of salvation. I don’t have to ask what sins they have committed to know if the Lord desires to be in relationship with them. If I find myself repelled by their sins or crimes, I know the Lord still yearns for their soul and to pour His love generously upon them. It causes me to experience again the immensity of the Lord’s love. There is no question about if He loves any person I meet in prison. That expansiveness causes me to stand there and just be awed by how the Lord never stops pursuing our hearts.
It is because of this grand love that I know this has to be from the Lord. Human beings don’t like to love so unconditionally. We like to draw lines, make limits. Outside of prison, we justify our failings by saying, “At least I didn’t do that.” Inside prison, they justify their failings and crimes by saying, “At least I didn’t do that.”
Men who hurt women and children are viewed as the low-lifes of prison. Sometimes they get beaten up when their crimes are discovered by the other inmates and they often have to be housed separately. Inmates with drug charges can believe that God would forgive them (even if they haven’t really accepted that forgiveness), but they really struggle to accept that God could forgive the men who abused children. In fact, I think most would say it is impossible or perhaps they wouldn’t even want to follow a God who could forgive such atrocities.
While I don’t think it would be easy to forgive these men for these crimes, I know that the Gospel is rather simple. The Lord, regardless of what we have done or haven’t done, desires to be in relationship with us. He offers radical forgiveness, even for the most hardened sinner. In fact, the conversions of great sinners enable us to see more clearly the transformative power of grace.
St. Paul’s conversion from persecutor of the Christians to faithful disciple of Christ reminds us that reconciliation is always possible. Alessandro Serenelli, the man who attempted to rape St. Maria Goretti and then fatally stabbed her, had a vision of Maria in prison and her forgiveness transformed him. When he was released from prison, he begged Maria’s mother to forgive him, which she did because her daughter already had done so. Bl. Bartolo Longo was a satanic priest who experienced a powerful conversion and then became a missionary of the rosary and devoted to the Blessed Mother.
It is beautiful to have the continually faithful examples of St. Therese of Lisieux, Mother Teresa, and Pope St. John Paul II. Yet it is also reassuring to see how souls who have fallen into pits of darkness can be made new, transformed by the merciful grace of God. When I am doing prison ministry, I am filled with great hope. These men I encounter, whether they will be released in two weeks or never, can become the next saint who inspires us to trust in the mercy of God and His power to redeem.
They are tremendous conversion stories just waiting to happen.
But, then again, I suppose the same can be said of us, too.