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Free Indeed!

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IMG_8407I 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).

Love Trumps: Lessons from the Tale of Woes in Charleston

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Friday 19 June 2015 at Metropolitan AME Church in Washington as mourners hold up photographs of the nine people murdered during Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. PHOTO: WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES. Culled from The Wall Street Journal

Three men and six women lying on the floor of an historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, USA, their bibles scattered on the desk and the floor, and blood streaming through the aisle is the picture of the world’s, yet known, greatest tragedy of the week of 17 June 2015. In all the heartbreaking dramas of the past decade, the terrorism and gruesome murder of thousands of Christians and religious minorities across the east, Africa and even in the west, and the destruction of iconic places of worship, this one stands out like the story of “Et tu Brute” (and [even] you, Brutus).

On the west coast of the United States of America, I was having a bible study with more than two hundred men of integrity (BBB Group) at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Bakersfield, California. The theme was on forgiveness. We recalled the rare cases of Christian forgiveness as witnessed during the Rwandan Genocide of about a million people, Pope Saint John Paul II’s heroic act of forgiveness to his attempted assassin, and many other examples including those from the terrorism-ridden places of the world. Little did we know that, at that very hour, on a similar occasion (bible study), terror was taking place closer home on the other side of the coast about 2500 miles away.

The meek, unarmed and vulnerable Christian community in Charleston welcomed a boy to their fellowship with open arms though he was a stranger. “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.” They were living the very words of Our Savior Jesus Christ. They were living out the teachings of the bible.

For one hour, one long hour … the boy (his name is intentionally left out here) listened, and was “part” of the body of Christ. The believers may have offered him water and coffee if he wanted it, since it is customary in many churches in the United States of America during bible studies to make for such provisions. After one hour of fellowship, he decided to kill the very people who welcomed him. Unreal! Mean!! Heartless!!! The rest of that horrible incident is a negative history; the memory would hardly be wiped out of the books. My heart bleeds. No need to recount the horror anymore, and give the villain an undue attention and space on my blog.

May the gentle souls of the fallen heroes of Christian hospitality rest in peace. Amen. My heart goes out to the families, church members and friends of the victims. I offered prayers and I will continue to pray this does not repeat, anywhere.

As the story of that massacre evolves, I find behind it yet another story, a Christian message of forgiveness. During the first court (bond) hearing the day after that evil-personified was arrested, the members of the Church and the families of the victims addressed him to his face. They weren’t in denial about their pains which are really deep; instead they acknowledged them but spoke the very word standing as judgment to the wicked: “I forgive you.” “We forgive you.”

I am edified by this heroic spirit of forgiveness and Christian answer to acts of hate and terrorism. I find in the son of one of the victims, the family members of the deceased and the response of the members of that Church as well as other men and women of goodwill, a clear example of the weapon of forgiveness. Christians do not live by the standards of an eye for an eye. We overcome hate with love, violence with peace, murder with the gospel of life. Our weapons are those of love not of hate.

We see in this tragedy, in the blink of an eye, how many people, irrespective of their affiliations, united in condemnation of the horrific murder. And at least, I suppose, a free world would realize how monstrously wicked people could be, if there were no solid moral compass to shape their thoughts and actions.

Many questions have been asked; how did the villain devolve to this extent, how was he raised, who are his mentors, how dare his father gift him a gun irrespective of a questionable track record, why the historic black Church, why in Charleston, South Carolina? We can go on and on without finding satisfactory answers. But one thing is clear to me; it is in the heart, wherein lies hate and the thirst for blood. For if the heart is not trained to love others, to love every life and to see one another as members of one family, it may as well be that a case-study of the mythic controversial homo homini lupus (man a wolf to man) is finding a scene on our time’s (world) stage despite the triumphalism posture of advancements in education, politics, human rights, science and technology.

In the face of evil, racism, and terrorism, in all their forms, we need to realize how love trumps hate; how a sense of reconciling and reconciliatory family is key to building a stronger world; how seeing others, irrespective of their color or background, as a brother, a sister; and how building on good moral foundations, and I dare to say, the dictates of love, is the only lasting principle for any society.

My Most Fascinating Story of the Week (A true story of conversion, faith and happiness)

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She has been a Catholic for about two decades, and is one of the most devout women in her parish. A regular Holy Communion communicant, Magdalene (not her real name), is happily married and also active in her community. Committing her time, talents and treasures in the service of God and her neighbor. Her faith … incredible!

“I lived a horrible life in the past. I was proud, lustful, and unhappy but God saved me”, she told the audience who were rapt in deep attention, listening to her story.

Born in an ungodly family in one of the North American countries, her dad forbade her from having Christians as friends or going to church. She was her father’s
darling and adored him. The dad was wealthy and she wouldn’t want to mess with
him, knowing she could lose out on family inheritance. Moreover, she didn’t care much concerning the “whole thing about faith and Christian morality.” She wanted to live her life freely and not be bothered by any standards “limiting” her freedom.

As a teen, she made her choice. “I want to live in the United States, the land of freedom and dreams to enjoy my life and maximize my potentials”, she had disclosed to her father. In order not to lose her to meaningless piety (so it seemed to her dad) of the religious nuns who taught in one of the local schools and who would, from time to time, chat with her to his distaste, she was obliged to migrate to the United Sates of America. This was considered a win-win situation to both her and her dad. She wanted to enjoy life, free from the daily monitoring of her father (her dad didn’t know this), and everyone else’s (including those laidback nuns who taught at her school). For her dad, America was the best fit so she could see life broader and be a freethinker.

The relocation to the US was fun, but only for a time. She was studious and took her academics serious, landing a good job after graduation, way ahead of many of her peers. Her self-esteem was very high. Shoulder high, she enjoyed every iota of pleasure she could afford. No violations of any state laws or work-related policies, no excessive depravity, just the usual stuff, it seemed to her; wining and dining, and sexual gratifications. “If you can afford it, go for it”, she firmly believed. By mistake, as they say, she became pregnant. She didn’t want the baby, not because she was ashamed – not her concern since all in her circle cared less. She decided to abort because she didn’t want to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of a baby.

Walking out of the abortion clinic after a successful abortion, reality set it. She felt sadness, anxiety and worries like never before. Guilt was strong and real. She was completely in moral rags. In her heart, there was a palpable conviction she had done something really horrible, terribly wrong. Her life wouldn’t be the same again. This caused her sleepless nights, climaxing in deep depression. A new search has begun – the search for inner peace.

For close to a decade she was searching. Her controlling temperament set limits to where she could go, and from whom she could receive advice. The person must be pristine, not one of “those”, she resolved. About where to go, some institutions were tabooed. Therefore she tried Yoga, travels to exotic, quiet new-age-style retreat centers or islands. No peace came, happiness seemed far-fetched. Finally, she decided to lift the ban, any Christian church will do provided it wasn’t a Catholic Church. “One faithful day, I was so disoriented I wanted to kill myself. I managed to enter my car and drive with no destination in mind. I wanted to drive to any church but never a Catholic church.”

Thus, any church, which had a look of a Catholic Church, was avoided. Finally, she saw a building that looked like a non-denominational or Pentecostal church. “The looks tell it all”, she said, “definitely this isn’t a Catholic Church.” She will enter and ask the pastor to hear her confession or something like that (she wasn’t thinking of the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation) and have the bitterness and guilt of her abortion off her heart.

Like a bi-polar teen run amok, she dashed into the church. The minister was about to begin the “service.” Her eyes were still beclouded she couldn’t notice it was a Catholic priest and the service, the Mass. Her guilt was too much; she couldn’t see beyond her nose. She simply grabbed the minster and the words jumped out of her mouth, “Can you hear my confession?”

The priest who was already vested and ready to begin Mass was taken aback. “Can I do so right after Mass because the Church is assembled for Mass and I should begin the procession?” It was then it dawned on her she had been led to a Catholic Church. She looked around and saw the Church packed; many people inside were calm, gentle and praying. The cantor singing a joyful song to the Lord and many who knew the song sang along. She felt peace outside but not inside of her. Would she surrender her will so cheaply…?

“Never mind”, she replied to the priest. She didn’t want a priest. “A Catholic priest, a Catholic Church? Never!” The priest held her hands as she was about to leave, and said to her, “You are not leaving. I will hear your confession.” He stopped the procession, stepped aside by a private space and heard her confession. “That changed everything for me. Joy filled my heart and has ever since. That was how the Lord brought me to peace and happiness”, she said, tears of joy dripping from her eyes.

“Wow!”, many exclaimed, “God is good.”