You who have tapped into this sight over these past couple of years are aware of my work at GBCI. An occasional homily or posting here will reflect my experiences at the maximum security prison. As with all ministerial apostolates, there are ups and downs, peak and pit experiences that a priest encounters along the way -- trials and triumphs are also associated with the ministry I extend to the inmates on Thursday mornings.
In July of 2007, I wrote of my 'cautious optimism' that one of my inmates was heading home. He had been in prison since he was 17, and while he still seemed so young eight years later, I was hoping that his intellect and his positive nature would assist him on the outside, even though I was concerned that heading back to the "hood" might not be the best of options for him, for the future.
Over the course of the year, I have been keeping up to date with this guy, hoping that he would make the best of his new found freedom. Those phone calls were never lengthy discussions; they were simply a means to let him know that there are people out there who are keeping him in prayer -- praying that he'd find work and find success at a second chance at life. After each of those calls, I'd invoke the name of St. Dismas in the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass. It was an indication of my vigilance for this particular individual as well as my other parishioners at GBCI -- past, present and future.
I was a bit surprised and also a bit concerned when I tried calling him this past August. An operator's recording greeted my call stating, "The number you have reached is not a working number... ..." Not only was I aware that I have most likely lost contact with this guy, perhaps permanently, but somehow I feared that this was indicative of some sort of trouble brewing.
While in Antigo a few weeks back for my niece Jessica's wedding, I went to the State of Wisconsin Circuit Court website. I searched for this former inmate, and amidst all of the cases against him that were labeled, "Closed," there was one case labeled, "Open." Just two days prior to my website search, he was picked up while possessing drugs with the intent to sell. The State's disclaimer, "This case has not been concluded. Unless a judgment of conviction is entered, the defendant is presumed innocent of all charges," offered little consolation. A jury trial is scheduled for 12 January 2009.
I cannot adequately express the disappointment I feel these days. Somehow I expected so much more from this guy. Beyond the prayers and calls, I had arranged for people to be positioned to help him with work, mentorship and ongoing post-incarceration care -- all of this beyond the checks and balances mandated by the State of Wisconsin. While I feel a certain degree of personal loss and defeat, those feelings cannot compare to what I think -- or almost hope -- he must be feeling these days. Right now I seem to have more questions than answers.
And yet in the midst of unanswered questions, it is our faith that can set us free. I came across the following reflection the other day while thinking of the former inmate. It has given me a bit of consolation -- it's also empowered me to think of any number of people -- not just inmates at GBCI, but also Packers at 1265, students at SNC, parishioners at OSJ and People of God in any number of walks of life who may be hurting or lost in confusion these days.
"God's flock is in our midst!" Through the intercession of Saint Dismas, perhaps we can be empowered to "give it a shepherd's care!"
Saint Dismas, detail from the Crucifixion painted by Beato Angelico in the Convent of San Marco, Florence (Italy)
At the beginning of His public life, Jesus says, ‘The Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News.’ This is probably the shortest summary anywhere of the message of Jesus and it is a call that echoes down through the centuries to us today. Jesus says to each one of us now, ‘The Kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Good News.’ It means a propitious moment, a suitable time for conversion.
By Jesus saying the time has come, he means that this is the favourable moment for him to begin his ministry. But each of us has his or her own propitious moment. There is a time in each of our lives when things come to a head and we are faced with a fundamental choice. A sacred moment when Jesus confronts us with a choice –when he invites us to make a decision. Maybe you have already experienced your particular conversion long ago. You can look back on your life and realise that at a certain age everything pointed in a particular direction and you chose the road to follow in life. Maybe over the years since then there have been many vicissitudes but I am certain that you do not regret the decision you made to deepen your life with Christ.
But maybe that hour is yet to come. Look at Saint Dismas, the one we call the good thief, the last-minute saint. His hour came at the last possible moment, but come it did. How could he have predicted that it would come as he was dying on a cross and that his neighbour up there on Calvary would be the Divine Saviour himself? After admitting that he had been justly condemned to death for the crimes he had committed, Dismas turned and said: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And Jesus replied to him: " Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Jesus, hanging on the cross, dying, is still preaching the Good News! And it's the words that all of us long to hear: "Today you will be with me in Paradise."
It's those words, coupled with the knowledge of his resurrection, that gives us hope, the hope that should direct our entire lives as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Hope takes that faith and directs it toward the future. As Christians, Hope means hope for heaven. The heavenly kingdom where this crucified Christ sits on a throne of triumph and welcomes us to a life of eternal joy. Unfortunately, in today's' world, the words "believe" and "hope" have become somewhat trivialized. "I believe" usually means "I think" or "I am of the opinion." "I believe that Roberto Clemente was the greatest right-fielder ever to play the game." Or "I believe we're in for a rough winter this year."Is that the same thing as saying "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, I believe in his only son, our Lord, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life."? Is that the same thing? Is it just an opinion or do we know it to be true?
It's the same thing with the word "Hope." "I hope" usually means "I wish" or "I would like it if..." "I hope the Steelers win the Super Bowl." "I hope we've seen the last of this terrorism for a while."Christian hope isn't like that. There's no "I wish" or "I would like it if I would go to heaven." For Christians, hope is something that is CERTAIN. We say here at Mass "In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection." It's not a guess. It's not just our opinion. It's the truth!Hope is an affirmative response on our part to the many promises of God. Sacred Scripture contains over 300 promises of God. And God's promise will come true! There's no "ifs" "ands" or "buts" about it because God IS truth. God said it; I believe it; and that should settle it. Because a God who is Truth wouldn't tell us lies and wouldn't make promises he can't keep.
Our faith in Jesus Christ should always give us that same certain hope that was the good thief's when Jesus said to him: "Today you will be with me in Paradise." As St Paul says this world is passing away. The years of our own lives hurtle by. A year ago seems like just yesterday. Of course, we don’t know when God will call us to himself. But we know that our lives on this earth will certainly come to an end and that our time is running out. Time is short. The hour has come for us to choose. So let us choose goodness, truth, wisdom and love. Let us take the Lord Jesus to be our guide. Let us go where he leads us. Let his words be on our lips. Let his thoughts be in our heads. Let his joy be in our hearts. Let his love overflow in our lives.
The Brothers and Sisters of Penance -- of Saint Francis
Saint Dismas, the Good Thief:
PRAY FOR US!