By Fr. Gene Merz, SJ
"Forget it! Impossible! That was my initial gut reaction to being invited to write a brief account of my ministry this past decade to women at Framingham Prison. Located a safe distance from Boston, Massachusetts, it is the oldest existing prison for women in this country. Built in 1877 for 452 women, Framingham now has 646 residents.
“In the beginning…” I was initially invited by Sr. Maureen Clark, CSJ, to share annually in her loving, dedicated service and care of the women at Framingham. For 30 years, Maureen has been the heart and soul of the Boston Archdiocese prison chaplains’ ministry efforts. I never imagined that in my 80s I would be doing prison ministry and writing books.
What was my initial prison experience? Strange and mysterious are the ways of God! The day before my very first visit, as I entered a guest residence on the Boston College campus, suddenly and unexpectedly I plunged head over heels down 13 stone steps! I met the Framingham women the next morning — sore, bruised, and hurting, but not broken!
We shared all that pain in common. “If he comes to us hurting like this, we can trust him.”
What do we do on a retreat day in this prison? It is what God does! During the year, Maureen, through personal contact, has carefully prepared a small group of women to be ready to enter into a personal and shared reflective retreat experience. Using the Emmaus scripture passage from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24: 13-35), we invite them to share their daily prison walk with Jesus — “what has been happening these past few days/months” in their lives. Everything shared by everyone is held in strict confidence. Confidentiality and trust is critically important in prison ministry. This retreat group is safe, supportive, and caring.
Understandably, these women look forward to this annual retreat together. It has been a source of strength and renewed hope for them. This loving, caring, supportive experience gives them a sense of “not being alone” within the brutal confines of the prison walls. Listening attentively to one another and vulnerably sharing their experiences against the pattern of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus has been a tear-filled, profound faith experience for all of us. “Didn’t our hearts burn within us...."
Through this retreat experience over the years they have formed supportive, healthy friendships which are so important in a stark, brutal prison environment. If a definition of community is “the achievement of common meaning,” this retreat experience has given them an experience of a faith community through their common experience, common reflection, common judgments, and common commitment to make the best of their present life situation. Empowered to use their gifts, they remain free in prison!
Have they made poor decisions? Of course. Who among us has not? Nathan to David: “That man is you.” We are not our mistakes! These women are learning and growing in very difficult situations. They should not be identified by their mistakes for the rest of their lives.
The privilege of being with these women has had a profound effect on me in so many ways. I respect them for the persons they are — women loved by God. I relate to them as I imagine Jesus would…and does: reverencing their person and respecting them as women; open and welcoming with no pre-judgments! I meet and accept them as they are — gifts to me at this time in my life.