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From Davao prison

 

Brother Juan Castro’s experience - Mission ad Gentes

Cmi

24/02/2009: Philippines

Most likely you are reading these words when the author has already moved on to work in a place other than the one described in the article. All the same, I would like to share with you an experience I had during my Davao session in the Philippines.

One of my confreres was given the task of conducting his apostolate in the city prison. Every Saturday he would go to meet some prisoners and converse with them. One Sunday he invited me to join him for the prison Mass, and the experience triggered my love for that Sunday celebration: a lively liturgy such as I had not seen in a long time. I thought back to boyhood Masses, and to Masses in Korea so filled with faith and com-munity song. Still, the prison Mass was different.

About three hundred inmates, male and female, crowd into the small prison chapel, the inmates themselves preparing the songs and having their own special choir. And then the celebrant: a Marist priest who is able to communicate a veritable conflagration to the congregation, making the Word of God alive and active in these places of exclusion and death. How is such a thing possible?

At the start, my curiosity arose in realizing that the Word of God was able to reach the prisoners and be understood by them easily, that the word “liberation” could echo in the hearts of those who live in the absence of liberty. And I could see that the communication of the Word, the explanation of the Word was having the same effect as it had when Jesus was with the disciples on the way to Emmaus: “Were not our hearts burning inside us as he . . . explained the Scripture to us?” And such an experience was indeed happening. The Word was becoming incarnate in the lives of these children of God, and perhaps with greater depth, offering hope to those who are without hope, bringing light to those who live in the shadow of death.

Even I was not able to understand everything that was being said in the local language, I could still observe the participation, the communication that the priest was able to establish with those who were present, both the men and the women. The harmony of spirit was evident, the Word was touching them deeply, and from their hearts were born songs and psalms of thanksgiving. I attended the Mass on ten Sundays. The faces of the prisoners are now familiar to me. If Mass has not yet begun when I arrive at the prison, we have time to exchange greetings and inquire about one another.

A lay group helps each week in distributing a bit of food and in giving Christian formation. The Marist Sisters have started offering basic math classes to those who are interested. Some people at the prison itself have offered to help out in the classes. Certain prisoners wish to study at the elementary levels in order to obtain a basic diploma. Some Marist laywomen and Marist Sister aspirants are also helping out in this school apostolate. What a surprise I had seeing one of the young women who wants to be a Sister. Quite fearless, she entered into one of the places used for the lessons and, very much at ease, she began to teach English to a group of about fifteen youths who are in prison on light sentences.

To be able to see the power of love in action is marvelous. On Saturday evenings, the inmates who make up the choir have their rehearsals. How keen they are to have a good rehearsal! One or more times they repeat the melody; the ones responsible chant the psalms. With what fervor, what feeling they do it! One of the choir members, about sixty years of age, told me, “Brother, you could not possibly know how happy I am here since I have encountered Jesus Christ. My life has been turned around. Now everything has a new sense, and I am happy to be able to live in union with God is this dwelling place of grace.”

He handed me a booklet in which he had copied out all the songs of the Sunday liturgies, adding, “In the early morning, before everyone has gotten out of bed, I reserve a time for meditation, for placing myself in the presence of God each day. Now it is not so important whether my relatives come to see me or not. I know that my elderly mother is in good health, and here I have found new hope for my life.

There are so many experiences and instances of devotion to Jesus the Prisoner on the part of so many people that I feel quite small and insignificant. This week National Correctional Consciousness Week is being celebrated, and its motto is, “One vision, one goal, one heart, one God.” Representatives of the various religious faiths are joining together to have an ecumenical celebration during the special week.

The Protestants, the Seventh Day Adventists and the Catholics will be present, yes; but not only the three groups. The Moslems will also join in the prayers and in a reading of the sacred books: Bible and Quran.

It seems that it must be a lie, but, in fact it is a reality that fills one with hope: the Reign of God is present; the sun that is born on high has visited this living sanctuary to give light to all those who were living in darkness and the shadow of death.

The Lord has remembered his holy covenant and the oath he swore: to set free from fear all those who serve him in holiness and justice all the days of their lives.

________________
Br. Juan Castro

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