April 9, 2017
by Hosffman Ospino, Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Education, School of Theology and Ministry
Hosffman Ospino holds an MA in theology with a concentration in Church History and a PhD in Theology and Education from Boston College. Dr. Ospino's research concentrates on the dialogue between theology and culture and the impact of this interchange upon Catholic theological education, catechesis, and ministry.
For your reference - Readings for Palm Sunday
Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
I Am in Prison…Would You Visit Me?
"Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… [I was] in prison and you visited me.'" (Matthew 25:34-36c).
About 2.3 million people in the United States are incarcerated. These are men and women in federal, state, local, and military prisons as well as juvenile correctional facilities and detention centers, among other forms of incarceration. At the same time, about 820,000 people are on parole and close to 3.8 million are on probation. The U.S. has one of the largest prison populations in the entire world. Compared to their percentages within the overall population, racial and ethnic minoritized groups are overly represented in our prisons: approximately 71 percent of all male and female inmates in U.S. correctional facilities are black and Hispanic.
Whether or not we agree with how our country operates using forms of imprisonment to penalize, correct, or deter violations to our legal system—and much can be said about this from different perspectives—we need to ask: how are we as people of faith supporting and accompanying the millions of sisters and brothers who are in prison as well as their families?
When we think about people who are in prison, it is very tempting to reduce them to the name of an offence or to numbers and forget their humanity. Yes, people who committed a crime or made an error of judgement leading them to prison never lose dignity as human beings. They are children of God, created in God's divine image and likeness, the face of Christ.
During the liturgies of Holy Week, especially on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we encounter Scripture passages where Jesus is in prison. In these passages we see a man who is vulnerable, isolated, and powerless without control over what will happen next. As we listen attentively to the passages, our hearts grieve with him and exude compassion. In light of that compassion, we want to be with him and console him. We already are aware of the details of the story and its end. We know that he is innocent, that he is the Son of God, and that in the end all will be well. Nonetheless, no matter how many times we hear that same story, we know in our heart of hearts that being in prison is taxing not only for the person who is there, but also for those who care about him.
As we continue our journey through the last days of Lent and enter the most holy of weeks, Jesus invites us to see him in the person who is in prison. Jesus is asking us to extend the compassion that we feel toward him to the person in prison because that person is him. Yet, to do this, we must recognize this person's face and name. We must go beyond the anonymity of numbers and the actual offense. Considering the circumstances, recognizing Jesus in the person who is in prison demands that we take the initiative and go to this person, visit with them, accompany them, listen to them, and let them know that they are not alone. Recognizing Jesus in those persons who are in prison is ultimately an affirmation of their human dignity.
Recognizing Jesus in those persons who are in prison also requires that we remain attentive to their families and friends. When people go to prison, their spouses, children, parents, and siblings are directly impacted by these circumstances. Many of them are left without the necessary support to move forward with their lives. When they feel abandoned and powerless, many start losing hope in others and in themselves. How are we, as people of faith, accompanying these sisters and brothers?
Recognizing Jesus in those persons who are in prison is a call to identify the reasons and circumstances that lead many people to lose their freedom. Christian accompaniment demands advocacy to prevent crime, to educate youth, and to support people who have been in prison and now are vying for another chance.
When we encounter the sister or brother who is in prison or a vulnerable relative of someone who has been incarcerated, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, age, and religion, they are the face of Christ for us here and now. Are we seeing the face of Christ in the person who says, "I am in prison…would you visit me?"
Let us take advantage of this Holy Week to focus part of our prayer and reflection time on how we take care of those who are in prison in our faith communities, in our social circles, perhaps in our own families, in our towns and cities, and in our country.
What can you take up once you see the face of Christ in the person who is in prison? Let me offer you a few suggestions:
Educate yourself, your family, and the community about issues related to mass incarceration.
Have a conversation with your children or grandchildren about this topic. Host a meeting in your faith community to talk about how to support and accompany people who are in prison as well as their families. Draw from the wells of our Catholic wisdom and commitment. For instance:
- Learn about the Dismas Ministry, a national Catholic outreach initiative
- Read the 2000 Statement of the Catholic Bishops of the United States, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice
Explore what your parish, diocese, or faith-based organization is doing to support and accompany people who are in prison and their families. Join efforts to prevent crime, especially working on initiatives that engage young people. Write or speak with your political representatives to learn what they are doing to address situations that may lead minoritized groups in your own community, town, city, or state to be overrepresented in the prison population. Express your opinion informed by your faith.
Do something practical
- Join a team of people from your faith community dedicated to visiting people who are in prison and/or their families.
- Support an initiative in your parish or neighborhood that aims to prevent crime.
- Offer a prayer, as often as possible, for people who are in prison.
For reflection and discussion:
1. What can you do as a person of faith to accompany people who are in prison and their families?
2. What will you do to see the face of Christ in the person who is in prison?
3. Can you spare 15 minutes of your busy life at some point this week to pray and meditate? If so, name that moment, reserve it, and treat it as sacred. Return to this reflection during that time.
Please submit a comment or response to this week’s Reflection below. We will post as many possible.