The Pope visited Regina Coeli Prison in Rome the day after Christmas, saying to the inmates, “You could not come to see me, so I have come to see you.” It sounds so much like something that Francis would say, but these are not the words of Francis. These words come from St. John XXIII on his visit to the prison in 1958. In my meditations earlier this week in our Novitiate chapel, I picked up “The Works of Mercy” by James Keenan, S.J., and reflected on this account, nestled in the chapter on visiting the prisoner.
Beginning in February 2012, I have gone to visit those who could not come out to visit the Lord on their own. For them and for me, church became prison chapels, classrooms, visitors’ halls or any kind of room, large or small, where we could gather to pray.
One thing was certain: He was there – the Lord was there.
His church became present in those rooms. Regardless of the otherwise intended purpose of those rooms, God shared his love with us there. He always meets us where we are.
Along the way there are some things that I have become more conscious of in my life. I found myself more aware of my connection to St. Vincent de Paul in this work. In reading and re-reading the chapters from the biographies by Coste and Roman about St. Vincent’s work among the galley slaves, two things became clear to me very quickly. Firstly, in this work and the other missions in which St. Vincent was involved, he did the ministry himself.
He went to the prisons.
He said Mass.
He heard confessions.
He preached Missions.
He washed and cared for the inmates.
St. Vincent’s ministry was gritty, hands-on and personal.
Secondly, St. Vincent used the power of his words to bring others into this ministry. It was collaborative. There were other priests, Daughters of Charity, Ladies of Charity and Confraternities of Charity, as well as others that Vincent invited and sent to this ministry.
Like St. Vincent, this ministry has been personal.
I have gone to the jails and prisons.
I have said Masses.
I have preached.
I have heard confessions.
I have listened to the stories of the men and women.
I have led studies in scripture for them.
In one special moment, I blessed those who were leaving, asking that God’s Holy Spirit guide them and assist them in discerning their future. At the end of the blessing, I hugged each of them firmly and said, “Don’t come back here ever!”
The second part of St. Vincent’s ministry was also a part of mine; that ministry which called for sending others into our jails and prisons. As St. Vincent had his collaborators in Monsieur and Madame de Gondi and St. Louise, I too had some very significant people teaching myself and others about this collaboration. They were Deacon George Johnston, Sr. Karina Haywood, R.S.M. and Sr. Elizabeth Gnam, O.P. We formed a plan and developed a program to train and send people into the jails and prisons and minister to the prisoners. These experiences have challenged me to reflect upon my vocation as a Vincentian.
As Vincentians we serve the poor and marginalized. In the last several years that has meant those serving the incarcerated.
Through my ministry, I have encountered those in prison and this particular experience of service and sending others into service, has strengthened my own identity as a Vincentian. Afterall, we Vincentians serve the poor, marginalized and abandoned and invite others to do the same.
Fr. Marty McGeough, C.M. was born in Queens, New York in November 1947. He was ordained on May 29,1976 and has mainly worked in parochial ministry. He is finishing up 5 years as Coordinator for Jail & Prison Ministry for the Diocese of Trenton in New Jersey.