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I visited one of the largest prisons on the West Coast of the United States of America. It was memorable for me because it was the first time I ministered to those in prison as a priest. The occasion was an Easter Eucharistic celebration, preceded by the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I felt God’s presence among the inmates in a way rarely perceived among many Christian communities with whom I have been privileged to fellowship.
A year after that visit, I was invited to minister to the same house in the same prison again. As I walked out of the prison chapel after the celebration, a young tall man approached me. I looked up and sized him up. In a split second, his imposing macho physique, which looked like the WrestleMania Hawk, scared me. The momentary dreadful second that seemed like an eternity was ameliorated by a sporadic recitation of “Jesus, I trust in you” in my heart. Surprisingly, the man was not a threat; he had good news. His big smile and warm embrace revealed it.
“Father,” he began, “your visit last year changed my life. I was a fanatic critic of Catholicism. I hated the Church and all her practices, but I have been searching for meaning to my life and couldn’t find it. I have tried all the worldly pleasures but still did not find peace.”
He explained that when I visited and ministered to them the previous year, he felt the kind of peace he had never felt before. He experienced a new kind of freedom.
“If you recall,” he continued, “after the services, you knelt down and asked us to pray for you. In tears I led the prayer. I was deeply touched by the sight of you kneeling down; and us, prisoners, praying for you. I finally gave my life to Jesus in the Catholic Church. I have been baptized and have received my First Holy Communion, thanks to your visit.”
He embraced me a second time and waved goodbye to me as I walked out of the prison walls, looking back in tears of joy as he waved. From his smiley face, I could discern a voice shouting, “I am free, though in chains.” God works in strange ways and to Him be the glory.
The encounter reminds me of a refrain from St. Paul, which he gave while in Mamertine Prison in ancient Rome: “Yours in Christ but in chains” (Ephesians 3:1; 6:20). If a man (St. Paul) in chains claims to be free and indeed he was free, then we need to reexamine the true nature of freedom.
Freedom is about the most popular word in our constitutional republic. In this postmodern era, there is no better phrase that depicts the zeitgeist (spirit of the time) than freedom. Thus, that is why the prison is the most dreadful place to be. Not necessarily because of a lack of good food or beverages. Most prisoners in the U.S.A. have better food and healthcare than many “non-prisoners” in many other parts of the world. In the U.S.A., recreational facilities in the prisons are better equipped than one finds in more than half the schools in the Third World countries. There is 24/7 attention given to the inmates, more than one can find in Africa, Asia or South America. Physical incarceration is terrible indeed, but the inner prison, the one that makes us not able to live the fullness of life; to be free from evil and free for righteousness, is the worse.
When Socrates was put in prison on the false grounds of corrupting the youth, he was given the option of renouncing his beliefs or drinking the fatal hemlock. Ironically, the choice was between freedom and enslavement; between the chains and the gallows of liberty, life and death; between suffering and license; between objectivity and populism. Socrates chose to die rather than sacrifice his integrity on the altar of deceitful compromise. By dying, he is immortalized in the hearts and minds of generations of the academia as a true philosopher of ethics.
John was in prison, but his soul was not imprisoned; though his movement was restricted by the fact of the confinement, his mind, soul, and spirit were not. People may gag your mouth and bind your limbs, but they cannot gag the spirit. John was behind bars, but his spirit wasn’t. Thus, from the depth of the underground jail, he proclaimed a message of repentance to the jailer – Herod. Though he died for it, his testimony will ever echo through the walls of Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Generation after generation will hear the sermon preached by John the Baptist from the holes on Herod’s dark prison walls.
Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian Lutheran pastor, during the early rise of communism in Armenia, wrote and preached the best sermons of his life from the darkness of the prison walls. At The First International Christian Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1985, he proclaimed, before a packed audience, “Chains make splendid musical instruments.” Needless to say, he did not remain in chains.
Servant of God Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan was imprisoned for 13 years in a Vietnamese jail, nine of which were in solitary confinement. Never complaining, he offered his suffering for the Church, the other prisoners and the world. Because so many of his ‘jailers’ converted, as he loved them all and never spoke against anyone, the prison authorities kept changing them! He was a free child of God, even though in chains.
In essence, physical prison, which keeps individuals from living freely, is horrible. Hence, people should avoid crimes in order not to face imprisonment. But the chief un-freedom, most assuredly, is being imprisoned from within; a self-inflicted incarceration, when people are not free for something good, something beautiful and something true. “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1) “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 6:36).
It can be a horrible experience to drive through Lagos, Mumbai, Los Angeles or New York City during the rush hour. If you do, you’ll see and hear all sorts of crazy and impatient drivers. If a meter could tally the record-high of the amount of cursing or bad language imposed on the world—it would be during those hours in those cities—where foul language is used with reckless abandon. I imagine people do not reflect on why they take holy names in vain! Or why they curse a driver of another vehicle with words or signs or maledictions. These in no way improve their stressful situation.
How about those who curse just to feel good? For them, cursing has become a tranquilizer; like a drug to ease off stress, tension and anxiety. When they feel bad about anything or anybody, they curse. They think they are just blowing off steam, but they’re actually cultivating a very bad habit.
Wouldn’t it be better—in these less than tranquil situations—to say a word of blessing? Of course it would. Bless your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt. 5:44). Bless! Don’t curse. Even when your mother, father, husband, wife, child, sibling, friend, neighbor or a troublemaker gets on your nerves, bless them, don’t curse.
When your employer stands in your way, or a supervisor fails to show appreciation for your work and services, bless, don’t curse. When your children don’t show respect for your age and experience, bless, don’t curse.
The fact is bad language is a trait of worldliness, the undesirable fruit of lack of self-control, which manifests itself in various dark forms and shades. It can be through misusing God’s name—blasphemy, swearing, profanity—and foul language (vulgarity). It includes cursing and the use of four-letter words which all have something in common—they demonstrate blatant indecency in speech and contempt of the person addressed.
When bad language is used in direct relation to God or sacred realities, it is blasphemous. It is a grave sin because it directly attacks and dishonors the name of God, or the Holy Names and, by that fact, directly dishonors our loving God (cf. CCC 2148). And when used in relation to our fellow human beings, it is a sin against charity.
So do not be too quick to use bad language, curse or swear. If you find yourself doing so, my friend, you have some praying to do. Ask the Holy Spirit to renew your mind and my humble suggestion is, don’t dismiss it with, ‘it’s just a bad habit.’ It is much more than just a habit and shows how much “dirty junk” the mind has been fed and how much has been allowed in.
“The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).
When our hearts and minds are pure, they generate pure thoughts and words, but when they are not, bad language can be one of the vices; this is a sinful default. As a missionary, I have yet to see anyone prone to bad language who does not have challenges with a healthy moral life.
Wry jokes in poor taste such as, “I can’t stand cursing, it sounds like hell!” are immediately put into a sober perspective when we understand the words of Jesus:
“But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account for it in the Day of Judgment” (Mt. 12:36 Douay-Rheims Bible).
And yet, we must consider the possibility that hell may be plagued with an endless stream of profanity. Cursing may sound like hell more than people realize.
Scripture and the Church’s Sacred Tradition condemn bad language in all its forms. “Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exod. 20:7).” The second commandment forbids the abuse of God‘s name, i.e. every improper use of the names of God, Jesus Christ, but also of the Virgin Mary and all the saints” (CCC 2146).
Scripture reminds us to respect God’s Holy name: “Let not your mouth form the habit of swearing, or becoming too familiar with the Holy Name…[O]ne who swears continually by the Holy Name will not remain free from sin” (Sir. 23:9).
In this perspective, may everyone become advocates, if you will, of the Holy Name Society!
(Culled from my book, Word For A Wounded World, Vol. 1, pp. 108-110)
Walking into the Shrine of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville, Alabama, where the nuns were nursing Mother Angelica, I felt deep peace within me. My soul was ecstatic in praise of God for this woman of grace through whom God’s opulent gift is poured out to the world through the media.
Mother was bedridden having suffered a succession of strokes. She could not speak, but her gestures were resounding. With difficultly, she raised her hands towards me, a sign she wanted a handshake. Her smiles were angelic and her face lit like that of cherubs.
I held her tender hand, so warm and soothing. I caressed it and gently laid my head on her chest, and kissed her chin.
She smiled and held me so tightly. The other nuns wondered what was going on. “She has never been this active in months,” one of them said.
Mother wouldn’t let me leave as I shared with her how the Lord must have been pleased with all she had done for His glory.
I told her about the new projects that EWTN wanted me to lead – projects of hosting and producing a number of teaching/preaching series, retreat tours and documentaries with a view of capturing the richness of the African Catholic culture.
She smiled and nodded, lifting her eyebrows towards me, her eyes looking intently at mine.
For me, it was a sign of a nunc dimitis as she acknowledged God’s graciousness and love for His people. (Father Joseph Mary Wolfe had told me Mother had long wanted to extend EWTN to Africa). The meeting lasted for about thirty minutes, and throughout the time, she never left my hands.
Thereafter, three of the nuns, her health care providers, served us (Fr. Miguel Marie and two other Franciscan friars, Randy and Br. John Therese Marie, who accompanied me) with bread cake and rich ice cream. Oh, Mother sipped the ice cream like a deer gulping fresh water.
“She loves ice cream,” said one of the nuns.
During the entire meeting, I felt heaven come down. It was one of a kind holy meeting. There was something about Mother Angelica that is spellbinding and pure.
We prayed for Mother Angelica and the sisters before leaving for Irondale, EWTN headquarters.
Love you Mother Angelica. Requiescat in pacem. Amen
Fr. Maurice Emelu
It is my pleasure to announce to you, my family and friends on social media, that I will be offering a daily reflection on Immaculate Heart Radio (ihradio.com) starting Monday, January 4, 2016. The name of the program is Daily Reflections with Father Maurice.
It’s going to be a brief, four-minute, reflection designed to draw attention to the tenderness of God’s love for us as well as provide tools for a transforming and deepening encounter with Jesus. Hopefully, the reflections will also be a channel of spiritual nourishment, inspiration, healing and hope for individuals and families as they go about their daily activities.
Airing schedule is 9:12am and 9:12pm (Pacific Time) daily on the 19 Immaculate Heart Radio Stations available also online on my page on the Immaculate Heart Radio website. They will equally be available for your free access, both in audio and accompanying blog-text formats through my twitter @revemelu, my official Facebook Page Fr. Maurice Emelu, my ministry websites gratiavobisministries.org and revemelu.com and my blog blogrevemelu.com.
Feel free to share the reflections with your family and friends and offer your helpful thoughts in the comment box as well. Your feedback through the public comment box on my blog as well as email firstname.lastname@example.org would be very helpful in enriching and improving on these reflections. I believe in dialogue and your critique will be graciously welcome.
May I ask for your prayers in order for the grace of God to be abundant as I take up this daily service of the Word of God, for the grace of love, wisdom, knowledge and joyful witness. If you are not a believer, could you please wish me well? Hopefully, my reflections will bring hope, healing and peace to those in need.
Remain blessed and Happy New Year.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
I met a new friend this week; a young man with palpable self-confidence. His demeanor is amazing and his ability to tell the story of his life struggles with a pristine sense of humor was charming. He had been sober for six years and so he shared the story of his battles to overcome drugs and alcohol.
I must confess I am a foreigner to the world of drugs. I hardly like drinking nor do I smoke. Nonetheless, I don’t know why I keep having addicts come to me for spiritual help and prayers, a ministry that is one of my nightmares. Maybe God sees the need to bring healing to them and I happen to be in their path for spiritual support. So, by interacting with them, I am beginning to develop more empathy for their struggles. God cares so much about addicts as he does the sober or the abstinent.
The story of this young man is inspiring. His account of what it took him to be sober was humbling. It was a combination of medical help, systematic withdrawal, and avoidance plus clinical support oiled by divine intervention. I wondered if I could live up to his kind of courage if I were in his shoes. Certain points during his healing process, he claimed to have felt like he was literally dying, because the addiction had made him so dependent that his body seemed to be tearing apart. “Oh my” he recalled, “What have I done to myself?” Many times he wanted to backslide and return to drugs, but because he was constantly monitored he couldn’t. “It was a heck of an experience,” he said. But after the long months, coupled with a deep encounter with God, he was free – he was completely cleansed.
According to him, it was after the cleansing that he realized how much dirt was in his heart, his bloodstream and inside his body. He now feels so light, fresh and free that he alludes living the life of addiction to being in hell. In retrospect he sees the difference because he has been cleansed.
What drugs and alcohol do to an addict is like what evil stuff does in the heart and soul of people. Take for instance bitter resentment, lack of forgiveness, lust, greed, and over-ambition. They simply coagulate, coalesce and congeal in the heart – thus we carry them as a burden, making our hearts bubble within the rough edges of dysfunctional wheels. Release from these burdens is a better choice.
By way of analogy, Jesus cleansed the temple of Jerusalem of it filths as recorded in the Gospel of Luke (19:45-48). There is a temple that belongs within us; it is our body, our soul, and our heart. Detoxification of anything making the heart unhealthy, preventing the freshness of the Spirit is a path to peace.
“How?” one may ask. By opening ourselves to the grace of God, the grace of Jesus, the grace of the Holy Spirit. This really works.
Would you like to join me in praying for all those suffering from different forms of addiction, alcohol, drugs, porn, cyber, etc., as well as all who may have allowed a pattern of life that deprives them of inner joy, causing them to feel like an addict? May the Good Lord grant them freedom. Amen.