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).