During this week of pray for prisoners, Fr Bob Eccles, for many years a prison chaplain, reflects on God’s mercy behind bars.
A homily for Prisons Week 2020 at Blackfriars
(Wednesday 14th October)
“The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. There is no law against such things as these” Galatians 5.22
What do Dominicans do for a living? Write their fat books, you know the answer. Well you are forbidden to actually say it because of Covid regulations, but you would if you could. Wouldn’t you? But then there are plenty of Dominicans getting about and meeting any number of dodgy people who never in a million years suspect about we even open books. Once you’d have bumped into one of them under the bridges of Paris, that might have been Pedro, a voluble Spaniard with his béret basque. The homeless have priests of their own. Or in a public park where the men come and go furtively, that would have been the wise and witty Bernard, older than I am, striking up unexpected conversations with the rough trade after dark, who to meet was always good news. Or in the red light district of Brussels, that was my Genevieve and Patrick, they get girls out of prostitution and into a safe place so they can get a life. All the congregations of Sisters in Belgium are in on that sticky enterprise.
There’s a house in the suburbs of Lille which looks like a half-way house for those who have lost their way but it is part of a Priory. Did you ever meeta brother who enjoyed going into a prison to prepare a prisoner for an exam, the expansive figure of Jean-Marie no doubt. Luke and Jordan you first met here, they are cutting their teeth in prison chaplaincy. The Dominican Sisters of Bethany were actually formed of ex-offenders, by Père Lataste.Actual busy chapters of lay Dominicans include ones you’ll never meet, you have to be the wrong side of the wallto belong.
St Paul’s list of wrong-doings in Galatians sounds familiar. But the respectable figures of Pharisees in the gospel turn out to be no better than they should be. They cannot escape the law they have made for themselves, it is the law of perfectionism, a spiritual disease, we should pray to be preserved from that. But patience, kindness, generosity, fellow-feeling, there is no law against things like that. What is the Church, what are the Dominicans doing amongst offenders, what are they up to in the night, in the unsafe places? In the gospel, the Lord, upbraided for his choice of friends, remarks that it’s not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. In the prisons the chaplains, they are just as likely to be women asmen, go in to visit those whom no-one has a mind to meet, no-one cares about any more, who may well have done unspeakable things.
Their visit is unlike anyone else’s, they are not there to check up on your behaviour, they don’t replace family, not Probation with a report to file, or the social worker with her notebook, they have no programme, but they learn to be there and come back faithfully and to listen. Their visit breaks the silence, the isolation. Their’s is the ministry of truth. It is not just that God is in favour of truth, God is truth. The Lord our God has all the time in the world to listen to us, what we have done, where we have been, he will not be scandalised, stop his ears or run away into the street, he will stay with us as we come to the truth about ourselves, who we are and who we ought to be.
Prisons damage, prisons reduce, they are dehumanising places for human beings who are already disadvantaged andfragilised. The chaplain’s visit says you do matter, you are of worth, there is a future and it can be better than the past. The chaplain goes into a cell to leave a presence behind.He or she is not a superior being but another frail human being, another sinner who comes alongside. Often too he or she must be the one to speak for a person’shuman rights. The governor may not like it but he has to listen to his chaplains.
This is Prisons Week in the church, and the church is behind bars. The church carries a burden for offenders, the church cares about them, this mission belongs to every Christian even when it is the individual sister or brother you think of, Sister Helen Prejean who was the face of love in the death chamber, the Rev. Pierre Allard who brought restorative justice into the penal code in Canada, Fr Anthony Ross with his visits to the Special Unit in Barlinnie and all those mysterious flats we never knew about until he had the stroke. Fr Dominic Sire who saw a man hanged in front of his eyes and was never the same afterwards, it was said.
This year, to our dismay, your feet were out of bounds. But commonly on Holy Thursday the Dominicans here wash your feet. We do this in imitation of the Lord at the Last Supper of whom St John says, “having loved his own who were in the world he loved them to the end” (John 13.1). There is little appetite for doing the jobs that deal with dirt and disorder, with any sort of human mess, and the disciples recoiled until he told them unless you allow this, unless you let me wash you, you can have no part in me, indeed you must do the same.
Having loved his own he loved them to the end and no-one is beyond the pale. You can abandon Jesus, you can deny Jesus, you can drive nails through the hands of Jesus, but he loves to the end. Nobody, but nobody is beyond the pale. There are plenty of us who at one time or another in our lives will hear the church asking for helpers, needing to identify that vocation, in Sister Helen’s words, to be the face of love for the most abject of people, those who the world would rather forget. There are no prizes for doing it. It is no big deal. This is just the sort of church, the sort of people we are, the Holy Father leads the way. They will know the church is holy when she kneels to wash their feet.