Since the late 1970s, penology in the United States has steadily turned away from hope in the power of rehabilitation and reform and has instead embraced an ideology of incapacitation and revenge. In the face of such cynicism and indifference to the plight of the incarcerated (and their families), Catholic prison ministry calls out more than ever for American priests to become involved in what some have termed the “prison-industrial complex.”
It is in this darkness that I see the light of God every day shining forth. Since my first experiences in prison ministry, I have learned over and over to see the face of Christ in the prisoners as well as in those who guard them. This Easter provided a good example. I have been working with a man on death row (, who studied Catholicism in his cell and desired to be baptized. I got permission from the warden to baptize him on Easter Monday.
Death row is a maximum-security area. All who enter it must don a stab-proof vest before meeting with inmates who are always kept locked up separately from staff - in other words: there is no human contact. Even when out of their cells, the prisoners are handcuffed and shackled with waist and leg chains.
Baptizing him had to be accomplished within these security constraints. With his hands cuffed behind him, and attached to a chain around his waist, he was escorted down the tier of cells to the entryway of the building housing the “Condemned” prisoners. A few staff, by his invitation came to witness his baptism. The normally noisy hallway became quiet and uncharacteristically peaceful as we began. He read a passage from Romans 6: “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” I had to hold the book for him as his hands were handcuffed behind his back.
The words of the ritual were hauntingly powerful as we stood against a black-painted wall, a wall that hid from our view the old Gas Chamber behind it. “If we have been united with him through likeness to his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection.” The words of St Paul challenged the whole machinery of death around us.
The words blessing the water were similarly a rejection of the power of death, violence and revenge: Light, Hope, Healing, Rebirth, Joy, Peace, Love, each word, each symbol hit like a sledgehammer against what promised only despair, only death. We who were gathered in that dark corner in that gloomy building that morning witnessed in the Baptism a clear sign of God’s grace shining into one of the darkest corners of our world. “Do you reject Satan? I do. And all his works? I do, and all his empty promises? I do.” This is why I love being a priest.
In a final breathtaking sign, as I prepared to anoint him with Chrism, he said, “Can you bless my hands as well?” In order to do so, he had to turn and offer me his hands, handcuffed behind his back. The same hands that took lives received the anointing with the chrism of salvation. The promise of liberation from those shackles brought tears to my eyes.