CORPORAL WORK OF MERCY VISIT THE IMPRISONED
Even the prisoner guilty of the most awful crime is still created in God’s image and is loved by God no less than God loves you or me. Along with the protection of society from truly dangerous individuals, one goal of imprisonment should always be rehabilitation so that the “lost” can be “found” and restored to a right relationship with God and others.
We can also exercise this work of mercy by speaking up for the dignity of prisoners. Our prisons are overcrowded and conditions can be dehumanizing for prisoners and guards alike. We must recognize that even those who are guilty of the most heinous crimes possess human dignity.
There are practical challenges when it comes to visiting prisoners, but the Church does have a ministry to them and properly-trained volunteers are always needed. My wife and I were actively involved in prison ministry for about a decade because of Matthew 25 Last Judgment discourse. Like many of the other Works of Mercy, the call to visit those in prison or at least to remember them as well as their victims in our prayers is also a call to suspend judgment…and to embrace compassion and justice.
Check with your diocesan office to see what opportunities there are for you. It is a challenge but one well worth it. In addition, you might look for ways to help those whose spouses or parents are incarcerated. They suffer not only the pain of separation but the stigma of guilt. You may donate to charities that give Christmas presents to children whose parents are in prison. Visiting prisoners may seem one of the more difficult works of mercy but there are certainly other ways to show compassion to the imprisoned and their families.
Our Lord said, “When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). Those who committed brutal crimes and have been imprisoned are certainly “the least” in the eyes of society. When Jesus shares his vision of the Judgment of the Nations in Matthew 25, He doesn’t mention the crimes committed or the sentences given. He simply says, “I was in prison and you visited me”
This work of mercy also does not end when a convict is released. There are programs of restorative justice we need to support to help former prisoners integrate back into society. Job training and employment can help men and women get a fresh start, and even in informal ways we should look for ways to welcome them back into our parish communities.
We can expand this work of mercy to embrace those who are imprisoned by the circumstances of life. The elderly shut-ins in our parishes, the residents of homes for the aged, and those who are trapped in addictions of various kinds are incarcerated in different ways.
Their isolation is less dramatic than if they were literally in prison, but for that very reason they are deserving of our care. And, because they live in our neighborhoods and may be members of our own family, we have easy access to them.
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