Catholic Peace Fellowship
Deacon Tom Cornell

Pope Francis has designated January 1 the World Day of Peace this year in an especially moving appeal for the things that make for peace. He declared indifference a fundamental spiritual problem, indifference first of all to God, then indifference to our fellows and to the fate of our common home in defiance of the Two Great Commandments. It is all too easy to be indifferent to men and women in prison. They are not like us, we assume. We are respectable, hard-working, law-abiding citizens; they are not. “If they didn’t belong there they wouldn’t be there,” some will say. “This is a free country,” they argue, “and everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, and we have the fairest laws and the most honest courts in the world.” And the kicker: “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” The fact remains that the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population but almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The US is number one all right! China with four times our population comes in a distant second.

Pope Francis has long made prison ministry a mainstay of his vocation. On nearly every foreign trip he has made he has visited prisoners to offer words of solidarity and hope, and he still stays in touch with Argentine inmates he ministered to during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires. And Francis has gone farther than his predecessors in condemning the death penalty, saying there is simply no justification for the death penalty today. He has called for its world-wide abolition. He has called life prison terms a “hidden death penalty” and solitary confinement a “form of torture” — and said both should be abolished as well. “Jesus tells us that love for others — foreigners, the sick, prisoners, the homeless, even our enemies — is the yardstick by which God will judge our actions…. Our eternal destiny depends on this.”

I remember a conversation I had with the associate warden at Danbury federal prison in 1968. “You are an educated gentleman,” he told me. “You will soon learn that most of the men in here are good for nothing. They’ve always been good for nothing, and that’s all they’ll ever be. Good for nothing!” And so that’s the way he and the rest of the staff treated us, as good for nothing. 1968 was the most tumultuous year across the globe since 1848, and although I had helped to conceive it, for better and for worse, I missed half of it. I missed the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I had to see what I saw of it on TV in a Mafia dorm. The Mafia guys rooted for the cops. “Kill the ______ hippies!” I was lucky to be assigned to that dorm because it was safe there. Rape is a constant threat in prison. When an effeminate man was assigned to our dorm and one fellow declared “he’s mine!” the Mafia boss told him that if there were any force involved he would wake up the next morning with his throat slit. Nothing happened.

The maximum sentence for violation of the Selective Service law is five years and $250,000 fine. Most men convicted under the draft act as I had been got two to three years. I must have had the shortest sentence in Danbury, only six months, for burning my draft card. But it was horrible, even if it was “baby-time,” as the inmates called it. Even so, I value the experience. Without it I would not understand the suffering of people behind bars. It is unremitting boredom. No one in jail is happy, guards included. Prison guards have the shortest life expectancy of any occupation. And the cooks! Unhappy people cannot cook. The food was terrible; whatever they cooked they ruined one way or another.

Preaching on this subject has little if any positive effect on parishioners. REC does! REC, Residents Encounter Christ, is a Cursillo based three-day retreat program that brings eight or so parishioners into a prison for a couple of over-nights so that they can share their faith journeys with prisoners, called “residents” rather than convicts. Mostly middle-class white men share their lives with mostly poor men of color. They laugh together at the silly games woven into the program. That’s the best part for me, to hear them laugh. You don’t hear much of that in prison. And we find that we have much more in common than not. We come to see these men as brothers and sons, if only for such a short time. It is forbidden to have any on-going relationship with the men. It’s here and now and that’s it!

Who benefits from this program, REC, the prisoners or the parishioners? You guessed it, the parishioners of course. They cannot fail to notice the disdainful glance of a prison guard when he sees a civilian carrying a Bible. These church people are advocates for the inmates! That’s not what the guards want! Most importantly, the parishioners come to realize how little correction there is in the correctional system, how little penance in the penitentiary, how little justice in the Justice Department. Then they are open to questioning how much defense there is in the Defense Department.

Ask your pastor if he knows how to contact a REC organizer. If he doesn’t, call the chancery office. Visiting the prisoner is a corporal work of mercy. Praying with the prisoner is a spiritual work of mercy. In the end, the merciful will be shown mercy.

Please visit the Vatican site to read Pope Francis’ message in its entirety.