A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to accompany the Little Sisters and Brothers of the Lamb to visit the residents of the Juvenile Correctional Facility in Topeka. Father Joseph Chontos, the dedicated Chaplain for these troubled young people, arranged and assisted with our visit.
Each time I have visited this prison, I am startled by the youthfulness of the prisoners. It is tragic that these young people have made such poor choices the courts have deemed it necessary to incarcerate them for the safety of the community as well as their own welfare. The vast majority of these young inmates come from very difficult family situations.
The Holy Father has asked Catholics during the Jubilee of Mercy to strive to live better the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Visiting the imprisoned is one of the corporal works of mercy given to us by Jesus Himself. (Matt. 25: 36) I am grateful to the priests, religious and laity of both the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph who are engaged in prison ministry.
One of the important and unique ways in which we serve some of those imprisoned in Kansas is Donnelly College’s satellite campus at the Kansas State Prison in Lansing. The inmates who have taken advantage of this opportunity to gain college credits have a very low recidivism rate. Catholic Charities in Missouri offers the Turnaround Program to help integrate successfully into society those recently released from prison. Turnaround participants also have an extremely low percentage returning to prison.
In my message to the juvenile offenders, I reminded them that Jesus did not come for the self-righteous but for sinners. Jesus was criticized by the religious establishment for associating with sinners and tax-collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus. Tax-collectors in the time of Jesus were the equivalent today of those involved with organized crime. I reminded them the first person we are certain to have entered heaven was Dismas, one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus.
With a lot of time on their hands, I encouraged these young inmates to use their imprisonment as an opportunity to come to know Jesus and to develop a friendship with Our Lord. I assured them that this is what Jesus desires for them.
I also told them, despite their physical surroundings, they are free. As you might imagine, they looked at me like I was crazy. With guards stationed everywhere and the security screening we had to go through to gain admittance, I understood completely why they thought I had lost my mind.
I shared with my captive congregation the difference between the biblical understanding of freedom and our cultural view of liberty. In American society, we consider freedom to be the ability to do what I want, when I want as long as I do not hurt anyone else too badly. This is not the scriptural understanding of freedom.
The freedom of the Gospel is not to do what I want, but rather the ability to choose the good. Biblical freedom is to choose what is right, what is noble, what is loving – no matter the particular circumstances of our lives. Even in prison, the Christian is free, because we can choose to love. We can choose the good. We can choose to praise and honor God. No one and no security system can deprive us of this freedom.
We see this in the example of many of the saints. St. Paul spent a considerable amount of time in prison or under house arrest. Paul did some of his most important and significant work during these imprisonments. Paul wrote many of his epistles from prison. It is these Pauline writings that have inspired and nourished billions of Christians for two thousand years.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, who died in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, chose to offer himself as a substitute for a married man who had been condemned to death by the Nazis. In this, Maximilian Kolbe not only chose the good, but conformed himself to the example of Christ by literally laying down His life for another man. Maximilian Kolbe, though confined in a Concentration Camp, exercised his freedom to save the life of another man
Father Emil Kapaun, a native Kansan, who served as an army chaplain during both World War II and the Korean War, died in a North Korean Prisoner of War camp. After their liberation his fellow prisoners attributed their unusually high morale and even their survival to the courage and heroism exhibited by Father Kapaun.
While I am very grateful for Catholics in both Missouri and Kansas who are already engaged in prison ministry, there is so much more that we can and should do. Perhaps, the Holy Spirit is using the challenge of Pope Francis to live better the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy to invite you to assist with the Church’s prison ministry.
This is not a ministry that everyone can do. However, we can all pray for those imprisoned. We can support financially Donnelly College, Turnaround or other programs that seek to help and minister to those incarcerated or those recently released from prison.
Please consider if Our Lord is calling you to bring His love and the hope of His Gospel to those imprisoned. To learn about opportunities to assist with the Church’s prison ministry contact in Kansas Bill Scholl (firstname.lastname@example.org) and in Missouri Bill Francis (email@example.com). Remember no matter the circumstances of your life, you are free to choose the good, to glorify God, and to be an instrument of God’s love for others.