Unexpected stewards of mercy

By Mary Ann Otto | Special to The Compass | February 16, 2016

“May the message of mercy reach everyone, and may no one be indifferent to the call to experience mercy.” (Pope Francis in Misericordiae Vultus #74)

The longer I live, the more I find myself saying, “Who knew?” What I don’t know continues to outweigh what I do know and I find myself having to eradicate ignorance and attitudes from my heart and mind. Recently, I have had two unexpected awakenings that changed not only my mind, but me.

The first occurred within the context of a simple conversation with my son who works for the Department of Corrections. He rarely talks about his work, but on one occasion he mentioned that an inmate had passed away on his last shift. Trying to imagine what that was like, I asked him who is “with” a dying inmate. He said that there would be a corrections officer present, but other inmates were trained in pastoral care and hospice.

The information and image that came to mind made my heart skip a beat. Tears still come when I think of it. Who knew? There is something so uncomplicated about the event my son shared with me that day. The inmate who would go through special training and be on 24-hour call to sit at a dying inmate’s side has experienced God’s mercy in his own life. He was being a good steward of a special gift of compassion and of God’s mercy.

The second experience was firsthand when I served as part of a prison prayer team. I am usually able to participate about once or twice a year and it always moves me. Two hundred inmates participate within the context of two services. The prison has its own praise and worship group made up of inmates. Those who come to sing, pray and offer prayers of petition for their loved ones. There is a lot of energy in the room. Younger inmates bring in those who are in wheelchairs. I have participated for nine years and many of the faces have remained the same.

On the occasion of our last visit, there had been a death of one of the inmates. Those who lived in the same area were visibly saddened and grieving. Many sat in the front row and some I did not recognize. Older inmates consoled younger ones and helped them follow along with the worship aid. When it came time for the prayer of petitions, everyone expressed their prayers for their friend and their friend’s loved ones. The articulate helped the inarticulate speak what was in their hearts so they could participate. That portion of prayer took about 20 minutes and the prayer team cried with them. I am crying as I’m writing this. So powerful! Who knew?

May the message of mercy reach everyone? Of course! Jesus finds his way into the heart of anyone who is open to him. We know the “good thief” found himself face-to-face with God in paradise. And may no one be indifferent to the call to experience mercy. Both Jesus and Pope Francis ask us not to judge. That applies to ourselves and others.

If, as stewards, we are to receive God’s gifts gratefully, nurture them responsibly, share them generously and return them to God in abundance, then it can happen anywhere at any time. Blessed are the poor in spirit! I do not know the circumstances of the inmates who passed. I do not know if the inmate who served as caretaker or comforter will ever leave prison but I believe that these events were so powerful for me because I could actually visualize and feel the powerful presence of Jesus in those circumstances.

There are people “who know.” They are prison chaplains, and those in dioceses and churches who have prison ministries which model Dorothy Day. They provide training and resources for those who want to serve in this capacity. People who have the gift of compassion place themselves in the service of Jesus for those who are incarcerated. They are missionary disciples who evangelize. Because those brought to Jesus cannot be easily measured, only he will know how many incarcerated hearts were brought to him through this beautiful pastoral care.

I want to thank everyone in our parishes and diocese, as well as our brothers and sisters in other denominations, who use their gifts to help those who are incarcerated encounter Jesus. Obviously, once they do, they are able to pass it on! I am humbled and changed.

Otto is Stewardship and Special Projects director for the diocesan Stewardship and Pastoral Services Department.

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