We are featuring a series of nine Faith Sharing of Virtues of St. Anthony of Padua that were presented during the fiesta 9-day novena masses. This will temporarily replace the Sunday Gospel Reflections; after which the Gospel Reflections will return.
VISITING THE PRISON
by RJ Limpo
My name is RJ Limpo and I am one of the SYA volunteers who serve in the Makati City Jail. I recently learned that St. Anthony is the patron saint of prisoners. And the story goes. During his time, there was tyrant duke in Italy named Eccelino III who was the son in law of the Emperor. St. Anthony went to him to plead for the release of prisoners from Verona who the duke was holding. That is why he is the intercessor of prisoners.
It has only been a little over a year when I was asked to be part of the cathechism group that gives classes every Monday night at the Makati city jail. And I am quite sure.. that just like me, a lot of you here would cringe at the mere thought of visiting a penitentiary / jail compound such as the Makati city jail.
I found it very easy or perhaps convenient to shun myself from any affairs that pertained to reaching out to prisoners because in my mind every time there is talk about prison or prisoners for that matter, it is often spoken of with much prejudice, judgment and fear. And it is not unusual for people to disregard any or all affairs regarding jail matters. It is often perceived as a dead end of sorts. A mere detention for people who have committed crimes (or at least been accused of doing so)
Then I remembered the final words of Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew: When I was sick did you visit me? And When I was in prison did you visit me? And those words opened my mind just as if God sent me a key to open my heart.
Even so, I would still fear going to the Makati city jail because of the stigma that is attached to it which deeply affects a typical “unexposed to jail” citizen of the world. But later on, as I got used to the routine of giving classes every Monday, my apprehensions and my defense mechanisms slowly diminished. And I found that there are only a few things consistent with my preconceived notions of a jail inmate and the presumed demeanor of a so called criminal or accused.
My biggest realization would be that a lot of the people inside the Makati city Jail are actually nicer than the people I meet outside the jail compound. And really, I often would think to myself, how far am I from finding myself at the predicament of these people? Behind bars. After all, I know that I am a sinner just like all of them. And while they got caught while doing their offenses I.. did not. So how far am I from them? Hmmm.. Perhaps I am but a wall away. . . literally and figuratively.
Lets try to give it some thought.. All of us here tend to act according to what our environment presents us. If we are agitated, we get angry. If we are nurtured we are gratified.
In my time with the inmates I realized that the biggest obstacle of MOST inmates is that they are poor. They cannot afford education, wisdom and counsel. And in hunger they commit a mistake and cannot afford to pay bail let alone be represented by a lawyer.
Let me share with you a story of one inmate:
Jose is from the Pangasinan. There he was a baker earning a meager wage. And he like many, in search of greener pastures took the leap of faith to blindly relocate to Manila in the hope of attaining a better life. Here he found a job as you would guess a baker somewhere in San Andres, Manila. Without any relatives or knowledge of Manila’s streets or dealings, Jose spent days and nights in the bakery and even his day offs honing his craft. As he knew nothing better to do. Soon after his co workers became envious of him as he had an apparent talent in what he was doing. Jose soon became victim of company politics / intrigue and was insinuated to have an affair with the bakery owners wife.
Instead of exacting physical revenge on a helpless Jose, the bakery owner instead schemed to lead Jose out of his bakery and into the streets of Manila which he knew nothing of. Without money, food, change of clothes, much less a bed to sleep on. Jose found himself distraught and helpless. And this lasted for 7 days. Even if he tried to apply to every bakery he would see on the road, his now hideous appearance made him appear more sketchy than competent.
This prolonged agony led Jose to contemplate on taking his life. And in his desperate attempt to do so, he one day decided to dart himself onto a cruising taxi. His attempt however failed as the taxi driver was more skillful than he was. In his frustration Jose resorted to smashing the windshield of the taxi and damaging even other parts of the vehicle. As the people on the streets saw him behaving this way, they mobbed him, beat him up till he fell to the ground leaving him with a broken nose, a fractured arm, and a beat up face. Then the taxi company owner filed charges of malicious mischief with property damage on Jose and soon he landed in the Makati City Jail. This perhaps was the biggest break to come Jose’s way.
In the MCJ infirmary, Jose was diagnosed with sever psychotic trauma and was asked to go through psychotic and physical therapy. And soon after stabilizing, his baking talent was discovered and there he became the master baker. Creating different kinds of pastries and eventually enabling the jail personnel to go into business by selling his pies.
Later on, he got acquitted. But without any knowledge of the family he left behind in Pangasinan due to partial amnesia from the trauma, the workers at Caritas Manila took care of him and are still taking care of him at their foundation where he again is baking.
End of story.
Pope Francis came up with an inspirational book this year entitled Evangelii Gaudium wherein he encourages all of us in the church “to make the gospel known to others” and to “touch human misery”. My response to this call was to say yes to the weekly Catechism classes that I teach along with my SYA friends. We make the gospel known to them but in return we are enriched by victories like the story of Jose the baker.
I have seen the face of Jesus in the inmates many of whom I know by name, and I pray that through me they see a face of Jesus that tells them to be hopeful and know that God cares. Right now we are about midway through the lessons of the reference material we use for the classes. And I must say that although my duty is to teach. I am at the realization that I am the one learning the most from this experience.
And that biggest lesson I have learned.. is that we simply have to learn to forgive ourselves from our faults and allow Gods infinite love and mercy to permeate through our beings. Whether we are inside a prison cell or otherwise. This perhaps is the reason why St. Anthony never tired of petitioning to free the prisoners of his time.
As a parish community, I ask you to pray for those who are in prison and are seeking justice. Remember their families as well who wait for the day that they are united. Share your blessings, you will be surprised at how something as simple as a bar of soap is so appreciated in prison.
And since St. Anthony is also the patron saint for lost items. Let us pray for his intercession to our Heavenly Father, to bring back these lives that were lost in evil crimes, into the grace of forgiveness, reconciliation and hope.