A Good Shepherd Lay Associate Shares His Apostolic Experience in the Men’s Prison in Uruguay
COMCAR Men’s Prison, Uruguay
“For I was in prison and you visited me.” Matt. 25:36
In the same way that hospitals admit the sick persons of society, prisons admit persons who, in the view of penal justice, have lost their right to move freely.
I began this apostolate as a Lay Associate of the Good Shepherd by joining the Prison Ministry of the Diocese and received a warm welcome from the priests and lay members of the pastoral team.
My first visits to the prison complex produced a very strong impact on my soul, almost eroding my fighting spirit. But in surmounting the initial difficulties, one begins to perceive clearly the help we receive for the mission from on high: to sow hope in persons in the vicious grip of desperation, their characters stripped of the values which should direct all persons of good will.
Those we visit recognize the words placed by the Holy Spirit on the lips of St. Mary Euphrasia: …”a person is worth more than a world.” This Euphrasian spirit which every Lay Associate desires to make his own inspires the action to rechannel the lives of these men to a better way, to help them discover their worth as beloved sons of God. The Scriptures are our compass, in them we find the charism we are trying to live out: the mercy, compassion, and reconciliation of the Good Shepherd.
The bad advice and wrong ideas which abound in the prison are like the weathervane which simply indicates where the wind is blowing. That is why the presence of the Church is so necessary… The harvest is rich but the laborers are few… Here in the prison the words of the Gospel are a latent reality. When we began these prison visits, we were three: a Vincentian, a Son of Mary, and myself. We could only visit Module 1 out of the 7 that are in the prison complex. Each module houses around 400 men, triple the member for which the module was designed. This overpopulation aggravates the situation which the authorities are trying to solve by building another module. But the reality is that we are so few and the first difficulty is to find people who can be truly committed to the work with all its exigencies and to adjust ourselves to this task which requires formation sessions, working in a team, learning from others’ experiences, and other formation personnel.
Before going into this apostolate, we tried to provide some mini-courses in which the recruits could be informed about the characteristics of the mission. At first there was a good response but by the end about half of them abandoned the courses. Thus we thought of having a sincere and faithful conversation about our actual work in the prison; this helped improve attendance in the mini-courses and to form homogenous and enthusiastic group.
There are many prisons, each one with its own characteristics. The more experienced members of the pastoral team had their ideas who among the recruits would fit in one or other of the prisons.
Then comes the first time to enter one of the modules and facing the rigors of the procedures and formalities for gaining entrance. One feels a double impact, first with the prison personnel, and this first impression is what could block the noble impulse we bring and make us say: “I’m not coming back here… this is not for me.” This is the time we should stay side by side, surrounding each other with courage so that the strength that comes from on high can reach us and fill us.
Relatives and friends on knowing our ministry, may say outright, “How could you get involved in such a thing?”Recruits should discern with whom to share information on our activities in the prison, besides the minor details of our evangelical work.
Each visit has an effect on our efforts which is always stimulating.. Of our first team of three, one has already gone home to the Father, but now we are ten. Four of them drive us in their own cars to reach the prison 20 kilometers away. The grace of the Lord must have certainly influenced us, creating us into a compact group, harmonious in a brotherhood under Jesus the Good Shepherd. We are truly grateful for we are now able to visit five of the Modules. This year, God willing we hope to get more recruits for the harvest is indeed great.
Regarding the prison population, we never forget the words of our holy Mother Euphrasia who said, “Give a glass of milk first before you start preaching.” Our bishop, Msgr. Nicolas, also tells us that we cannot evangelize those with empty stomachs. Therefore we always try to bring something, especially food, each time we visit. We are grateful to the Good Shepherd Sisters, our religious family, who always provide something. Also my wife who helps me prepare the food. This, and her prayers, are her support for my prison apostolate.
The prison food is called “el rancho” for it is the same everyday, no variation, and with hardly any nutritive value. The “hot brick” is a little kitchen with electricity in which the prisoners could prepare another menu. The ingenuity of the prisoners to cook other things is really marvelous!
Now, for the spiritual food. How can we speak of culture to people who lack it? Much less the moral values to those who have done all kinds of “anti-values.”
All human beings have needs and those with no moral values do not hesitate to use any method to survive and live on the margins of the law. Assuming that all are equal, the prisoners are divided into those who elude the laws and are “outside” and those who are “unlucky” due to ignorance or lack of skills. The concept of who we are can be a profound study for them. They call us “credulous, easy to deceive or cheat.” They study us and try to situate us in a definite fringe or strip but they know nothing of faith, much less of hope and haven’t the least idea of charity. The first step we take is to stress these values as well as the human virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
Recently when they discovered that our visits were not motivated by personal interests, they began to get ideas of right and wrong. They wanted to know more about us and how we are animated by Christ… They felt that in their heart was a place which only Christ can fill, that this place is empty and that only Christ can occupy it. To do evangelizing work in a penitentiary has many difficulties due to the different modules, some due to disciplinary problems which suspend our visits. All these conspire to affect the continuity of our task.
Before entering the cells, our team forms a circle, holding hands we pray that Jesus would help us. Inside, during the session we also hold hands with the prisoners to thank the Lord and do the same before we leave. Thus we entrust everything to the Lord before, during, and after every session.
It is indeed an inestimable grace to belong to the Good Shepherd family for we have learned, individually and as a group, to search for the lost sheep, to form groups and to delegate functions, to treat each person as a Christian, without looking for collisions but for coincidences.(Our brother Eudists are very skilled in this).
All throughout this apostolate, I have always felt the support of my wife, my religious community of the Good Shepherd, and my brother lay associates. For all of them I give thanks to the Lord.
In my grateful heart and mind resounds the infinite mercy of God which has associated me with His work of redemptive love and helped me to live the charism implanted by the Holy Spirit in the heart of that great woman, our St. Mary Euphrasia. She lived and practiced the mercy and compassion of the Good Shepherd which led her to tell us that “A person is of more value than a world…”
For our brothers I ask the Lord for their perseverance in His service and the daily strength to look for the good, leading us to the Father who welcomes us and to rejoice with every son who returns to His house.
Lay Associate of the Good Shepherd