I met Juan in prison just 2 ½ years ago, a quiet and very reserved man. Some of our sisters and priests had known him as some years ago as he worked as a lay person in a nearby parish. Juan lived for many years under great stress as his wife suffered deep depression and his son was Schizophrenia. Both his wife and son progressed rapidly in their problems and illnesses, especially his son. Eventually Juan broke down both physically and mentally and he murdered his wife and son. He never denied his guilt and 2 months ago at his trail he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
When I first saw Juan he was sitting at a table in prison surrounded by books as he was in charge of a small library in the prison and when he was not tending to the library he was sewing leather purses. As I often did I sat down next to him and we talked regarding life. I shared with him how we all fail God in some way or another but because of His immense love for us He gave His only Son so we all can be forgiven and be reconciled back to Himself. All that He asks of us is that we allow His Son Jesus’ love to saturate our heart and our conservations deepen from there.
As our talks continued Juan allowed Christ into his heart to heal his brokenness and when I asked him how he was doing, he replied by saying, “last night I slept like a baby for the first time in 2 ½ years, I felt a free man, my guilt is done and I am at peace”. I could feel his peace and it touched the very depth of my soul. I felt an overwhelming happiness for him, because he was renewed and restored by the grace of God all because he allowed himself to be forgiven, his penance to be served in the eyes of God, by a Savior he come to know in his darkness moments. Now Juan is sharing that same message with other prisoners because after forgiveness God’s plan is always to redeem and restore us, where we find new life.
We spoke about how he would spend his remaining time in prison, and he shared that he would continue to work in the library and sew but that he would also work at helping other prisoners find the peace and comfort he did. I have met many prisoners like Juan, who in spite of their own pain, guilt and loneliness were able to reach out to others with similar histories. Psychologist E. M. Jellinick researched and wrote about this in the 1960s, when he said that each addict was a doctor, psychologist and spiritual guide to one another. I call them prisoners anonymous (P.A.) as like in A. A., because through their shared suffering they can help one another to recover. Juan has been listening to the pain of others, the pain that comes from deep seeded loneliness and isolation to give them suggestions of how they can find peace like he did through accepting who he was and allowing God to change him. They would ask him how and his reply was always the same, receive His forgiveness, understand the compassion and mercy He has for you and above all allow God to love you. When I talk of P.A. (prisoners anonymous) I see prisoners like Juan because if they do not help each other….who will? That is my mission here said Juan and he felt it to be a great privilege to know this man who reached the depths of his despair and by the grace of God admitting humbly his own guilt and shame and knowing like the prodigal son the love, mercy, forgiveness and compassion of God, he can be light in the darkness for other prisoners.
Many times I ask myself why some people go to prison, it is surely a mystery.
Sr. Angela McKeever is working for many years in Puente Alto Prison in Chile