August 15, 2014

Rejoice in the Lord

Visiting the imprisoned offers the healing and hope of our Lord

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinDuring the past year and a half, I have been asking the question, “Where is the Holy Spirit calling us to open doors here in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis?” I am convinced that one of the things we are called to do is to proclaim God’s mercy to all who are in need of forgiveness and healing.

God’s mercy is expressed concretely in the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and imprisoned, and to bury the dead. We call these “works of mercy” because they reveal in very practical ways God’s life-giving love and compassion for all his children.

The final three corporal works of mercy—to visit the sick and imprisoned, and to bury the dead—challenge us to move out of our comfort zones in ways that are very specific and, very often, unpleasant. Few of us enjoy being with sick people or prisoners, and our culture encourages us to deny death—to keep it out of sight and out of mind. God’s mercy calls us to overcome our aversion to illness and death, and to forgive those who have sinned against us.

St. John Paul II showed us how to practice works of mercy. He visited in prison the man who tried to kill him. He welcomed the sick and infirm—including victims of every kind of disease.

Pope Francis has also demonstrated his commitment to the corporal works of mercy. Remember last year when he broke with tradition and decided to wash the feet of inmates at the juvenile detention center of Casal del Marmo, in Rome on Holy Thursday? Then a year later, he washed feet at the Don Gnocchi Center, a home for the elderly and disabled in Rome. By making these powerful gestures, the Holy Father took something that had become remote and ritualized and brought it back to the original, startling context of Jesus, the Lord and Master, washing the feet of his disciples and commanding us to do likewise.

Where is the Holy Spirit opening a door for us here?

One very real possibility is in the area of prison ministry. In Indiana, there are 23 state prisons for adults and six juvenile correctional facilities. We also have two federal prisons—one maximum security and one medium security, both located in Terre Haute. Nearly 30,000 people (mostly adult males) are in our state prisons, and more than 3,000 adults (all men) are incarcerated in our federal prisons.

I recently celebrated Mass at the Indiana Women’s Prison on the west side of Indianapolis. More than 400 women are incarcerated in this facility, and many are classified as having “special needs” such as mental illness and pregnancy. Ages range from juveniles sentenced as adults to the elderly. The Indiana Women’s Prison also houses Indiana’s only death row for women, but thanks be to God, no woman is currently sentenced to death in our state.

I’m deeply grateful to the priests, deacons and lay people who minister to the needs of prisoners at the Indiana Women’s Prison and all of the prisons in our archdiocese. They truly are angels of mercy. They do not judge. (The courts have already passed society’s judgment on the men, women and children who are being held in Indiana’s prisons.)

Instead, they offer the comfort, hope and forgiveness of Jesus Christ, who loves us all in spite of our sins. Through this particular corporal work of mercy—visiting the imprisoned—the healing and hope of our Lord is generously shared with those who need it most.

Pope Francis challenges all of us to resist the powerful urge to ignore these sisters and brothers in prison. It’s true they are out of sight and out of mind to most of us, but that itself can be a serious problem. How can we carry on the work of the Lord if we are unwilling to wash the feet of those who are on the margins of society far removed from our homes, our neighborhoods and our parish communities? Jesus did not shy away from sinners. He reached out to them, healed them and loved them. Like it or not, he told us that we must do the same.

As we undertake the important work of pastoral planning, I will be encouraging us to “dig deeper” into this particular corporate work of mercy. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, may we find ways to open new doors as we reach out to those who are most in need of God’s love and mercy—both now and when they return to society. †

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