This article appears as a second part of a two-part series on Fr. Marty MeGeough’s experiences in serving incarcerated men and women in the Diocese of Trenton’s prison ministry. Read part one here.
During my time serving in prison ministry, besides growing in appreciation for St. Vincent, I have also encountered the challenge of seeing the face of Christ in these men and women who are incarcerated, and to fully live the maxims of Matthew 25:
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25: 35-40.
With eyes of faith, I am continually challenged to look beyond, to see the presence of Christ in these men and women, despite their crimes. Through all the committed crime, prison garb, multiple tattoos -some with truly diabolical significance – through all of this I am challenged to see Christ. It can only be with faith that we can, as St. Vincent says, ‘turn over the coin’ to see the face of Christ.
To recognize the face of Christ in the incarcerated led me at one point to reflect not on Christ within the prisoner but rather to reflect on the idea of Christ as a prisoner.
This is not a usual subject for meditation, and yet the accounts of Christ’s passion are the stories of Jesus’ arrest, trial, conviction and execution of sentence. Although the total elapsed time of all these events is less than a day, that time is filled with the sufferings that so many inmates know in their lives. Jesus knows betrayal, abandonment, denial, harsh treatment and rejection. Each small part of the narrative is filled with examples of these behaviors on the part of his disciples or others who are close to him. All of this as I said in less than a day.
For me, looking at Jesus in that manner enables me to look and see the men and women I serve as being the modern presence of Christ. When I look at Jesus in this manner, I find myself ready to serve him in those whom I see almost every day.
When Matthew wrote these words, especially about inmates, his subjects were actually Christians who were in prison for following Christ. Over time, that changed until at the time of St. Vincent those whom he served were criminals in the manner that we would understand them today. But the call of the Gospel has not changed and so I have looked beyond what is present to see the face of God.
For me, my favorite inmate is a fictional one drawn from the pages of literature and given new life in musical theater. His story is a story of the harshness of a system and the power of one man’s love to turn around the life of another man. He was an ex-con who broke his parole but otherwise lived fully the spirit of Matthew 25.
The kindly Bishop of Digne with his lie saves Valjean from recidivism and sends him on the way to transforming his life and becoming a more Christ-like person. Valjean becomes a man who lives by the edicts of Matthew 25. He lived Jesus’ words so well that he that he could end his life with an abbreviated form of the passage in Matthew, reminding us that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”
I have seen God’s face in prison and I hope I have become a better Christian, priest and Vincentian because of the time I have spent behind the walls.
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.