Prisoners may be ‘out of sight,’ but not to God

By Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, Clarion Herald Commentary

During Holy Week, you have traditionally gone to prisons in the area to meet with inmates, wash their feet and pray with them. How has this become such an important pastoral practice for you?

Prisoners so often are considered “out of sight, out of mind” to society, but what I always tell them when I visit is that they are not “out of sight, out of mind to God.” Likewise, as we Christians may not see them often (out of sight) they remain in our prayers and thoughts. We, as the Christian community, lift them up to God in prayer. It is powerful to pray with the inmates and with the prison staff. This year, I went to the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office Justice Center on Holy Thursday, where I washed the feet of inmates, and then to the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff’s Office jail on Good Friday, where we held a prayer service tied to the passion and death of Jesus. I also have made visits to Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie to meet with prisoners and celebrate Mass. I think it’s important that when Jesus said, “When I was in prison, you visited me,” he meant that literally.

How have the prisoners reacted to your visits?

They have been very prayerful and respectful. Our prayer is that whatever they have done wrong, they will repent and seek the Lord’s mercy. That mercy is always given in abundance. Mercy leads us to a new way of life, to a conversion. We always pray that they will follow the ways of the Lord as they live out their time in prison. One of the difficult challenges faced by the penal system today is that there is not as much rehabilitation offered as there could be and should be. We believe this time should be used for quality rehabilitation programs and restorative justice. I’m so grateful that our Catholic Charities has wonderful, life-changing programs both for prisoners and for prisoners’ families. Cornerstone Builders helps families and keep them connected with their loved ones who are incarcerated, and our Re-Entry 72 program helps prisoners who have been recently released find a place to live and a job. We treat the newly released with care and respect. Certainly, we never justify criminal activities and we never justify actions that disrespect others. At the same time, we believe the God who loves us, the God of mercy, offers forgiveness and the opportunity for a change of heart. I’m also very impressed that several of our parishes have stepped up to train individual parishioners to do prison ministry. We have an excellent program, and that’s a credit to Catholic Charities and our prison ministry director, John Messenheimer. Many of our permanent deacons and several priests also are involved in prison ministry. All these efforts have resulted in encouraging prisoners to deepen their relationship with Christ and to follow the ways of the Lord.

What was it like for you to wash the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday?

I can say that I literally saw the face of Jesus in them and prayed for them. This is what Jesus did at the Last Supper. Let’s not forget that he washed the feet of Judas, his betrayer, and he washed the feet of Peter, who later denied knowing him. Is that not profound? Also, when we shared the Way of the Cross, it was a way to ask them to reflect on the crosses they may have burdened their victims with as well as the cross that is their own jail sentence. The Lord Jesus walks with them in love and calls them to a new life.

Is this all about showing mercy?

Every once in a while, you will hear someone say about someone’s actions, “That person was too merciful.” What does that mean? We are to be as merciful as Jesus. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy” (Matt 5:7). I’d much rather Jesus tell me at the end of my life that I was merciful rather than ask why I was so stingy in offering forgiveness.

Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to clarionherald@clarionherald.org.

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