Earlier this week I was able to make an all too infrequent visit to one of the seven prisons located within the Melbourne Archdiocese. The sacramental and pastoral care of prisoners is one of those hidden acts of corporal mercy which is exercised daily by a small band of lay and clerical chaplains. A shout out to them for their dedicated service and Christian witness.
My visit involved celebrating Mass with a group of prisoners who gather fortnightly for this. But on this occasion, it also involved the Christian initiation of one of their fellow prisoners, a young man who has found faith while serving his time. Let me call him Maximillian Kolbe, after the saint whose name he took as his confirmation name—the patron saint of prisoners.
I do not know why Max is in prison—it’s a question you simply do not ask—but clearly he has experienced a powerful conversion, through the support of the chaplains who have been his catechists. Nervous beforehand, and beaming with joy afterwards, this young man was baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, confirmed in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and partook in the Eucharist with his fellow inmates. It was a beautiful thing to see.
I was struck not only by the evident faith of Max, now a fellow Christian with us, but also by the actions of the other prisoners. A number had come to Mass in support of their brother, who, in turn, has now become a witness of faith to them. There is mercy and hope, renewal and goodness, in coming to Christ, even for hardened criminals.
These prisoners also banded together to put on a small party for their friend—home-made muffins and ice-cream prepared in advance by one of the prisoners—and a congratulations card made using ‘borrowed’ paints. A prisoner of Aboriginal heritage, about to be released, shared how he would encourage those remaining. As an artist, he would offer them a large painting each couple of years, to be hung in a common area, gradually telling the story of the combined history of Indigenous and European Australia. An act of paying forward.
We had only about an hour and a half for Mass and the party before all of them, including Max, had to go into evening lock-down. But everyone pitched in, they all tidied up the chapel, they put the chairs away, they thanked the chaplains, and they congratulated Max. (To be honest, this is more than what you might see on an average Sunday in our parishes.)
I do not wish to paint a ‘Pollyanna’ image of prisoners and prison life. The inmates are there for a reason, and prisons are often corrupting and dangerous places. But light is also there, and people can find hope and conversion. Goodness is present and fostered. Mercy and kindness can flourish amid meanness and cruelty. I witnessed a small Christian community the other day that might properly be described in biblical terms, ‘see how they love one another’. Some of them will watch Mass on TV with us this weekend. May we salute them.
St Paul said, in our second reading today, ‘When we were baptised we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.’ This description of Christian initiation can occur in the most unexpected and unlooked-for places, even in prisons. As Jesus said, ‘Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me.’ Max has now found this new life in Christ, amid his present location marked by death. Pray for him, and for his fellow inmates.
Main image: St Maximilian Kolbe, stained glass, Our Lady of Czestochowa Grotto (Sorrowful Mother Shrine). Photo by Nheyob on Wikimedia Commons.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli17 November 2023