I just spent the day in prison, and it was probably my favorite day in Mexico so far.
I suppose I should explain that statement… After all, I have had many wonderful days in Mexico!
On Thursday, I went with my pastor to a military prison to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, and have a Holy Hour (obviously, I wasn’t the one celebrating Mass or hearing confessions, but I did serve as an acolyte). We went with two other people from our church and a local religious sister who has been involved in prison ministry for many years.
The day started when Father told me, “Don’t wear blue, red, green, or yellow.” All of this actually made sense, since I have worked with troubled youth in the past and I am very well aware of gang violence and related issues. Still, I did not know what to expect, and to be honest, I was a bit apprehensive. I knew, however, that everything we were about to do would be for His glory alone, and so I left it to Him, asking for the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
When the five of us arrived, there were several rounds of screening. I’m not sure how much detail I should use, so I will stay sufficiently vague I hope. Of course, we had to enter the military base itself, then we proceeded to the prison. Once there, at the first entrance we were checked for any electronics, then at the next gate, the real screening began. I say this because at this particular checkpoint (out of 5 total), we spent about an hour and a half. I quickly found out the reason for our long delay – one of us had one of these:
You can guess who it belonged to…
In any case, after checking to see if it was O.K. for this estadounidense to enter the compound, we were escorted by several M.P.s through the rest of the checkpoints and finally to the prison chapel, where many of the congregation were already waiting for us.
Upon arrival, Father got to work almost immediately, taking a couple of chairs out to a grassy field and began hearing confessions. Meanwhile, I started to help prepare for Mass and the Holy Hour. This experience in itself was very humbling, as the prisoners were asking me if everything was set up correctly. These were men with ranks from Private all the way to Major, who for whatever reason found themselves incarcerated, asking me for advice and direction, this backward hobbit of a seminarian from the Central Valley of California. What’s more, is that they were all so welcoming, prisoners and M.P.s alike. I could tell that many of these men had a deep faith and were truly attempting to seek God’s everlasting mercy.
After confessions were over, we had Benediction to conclude the Holy Hour and then began the Mass. I will always remember the fervor and the strength with which these men sang! I assume some of it has to do with the discipline of the institution and their military training, but to hear their voices ring out in praise to God was truly an edifying experience. I now understand why a soldier’s battle cry can strike fear into the heart of his enemy!
Following the Mass, we had the opportunity to gather and share a meal. So many of the conversations I had enlightened me to life inside the prison, and helped to show me the need for mercy and compassion in today’s world. A side benefit to all these conversations is that today, just nine days before I return to the United States and begin my Pastoral Year, I realized that I have actually learned some Spanish, and it was a joy to be able to connect with so many people on such a profound level (even as they were being very patient with my fledgling speaking skills).
The conditions in this particular prison were very nice, but I am under no illusions that other prisons in Mexico come close to comparing with this institution. I also know that the United States has over two million people under incarceration, almost one percent of the adult population in our country. My time in the federal prison today has helped open my eyes to the need for us to reach out to ALL people – every single person deserves to encounter the merciful touch of the Father through the Son with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, that encounter may come through one of us, and we have to be ready to respond. No person’s life is worthless, and we cannot let anyone forget this truth, because I think when people do forget it, this is when they begin to slide even deeper into darkness. Let us work to bring the light of Christ to all people, even as we seek to encounter and accept the mercy of God in our own lives.
I have had many valuable and enriching experiences in Mexico – new cultures, new people, new places. There are so many memories that I will cherish for a lifetime, but today, the day I spent in prison, will be the day that makes the largest imprint on my heart, the one exception being my encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Todo gloria a Dios. Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, ruega por nosotros. San Benito, ruega por nosotros.