By Fr. Daniel Bowen, O. de M.
You’ve likely heard about the Jan. 10 death of Cardinal George Pell, the courageous prince of the Church who suffered in prison and endured nothing less than a white martyrdom for Christ.
His passing recalls the life of a courageous Christian persecuted for his faith but who turned a tragedy into a victory for Christ.
Cardinal Pell was unjustly convicted in his home country of Australia in 2018 of multiple counts of sexual abuse. And in 2020, Australia’s High Court unanimously overturned his six-year prison sentence, explaining that he should not have been found guilty of the charges and that the prosecution had not proven their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The cardinal, who was convicted at age 78, endured a gruelling four years of accusations, investigations, trials and public humiliations. He also endured imprisonment for 13 months before being acquitted of crimes he did not commit.
Witness of Forgiveness
This cardinal’s witness of forgiveness and his lack of animosity toward his persecutors recalls the lives of imprisoned martyrs such as St. Thomas More, St. Paul, and of course Our Lord himself.
While in prison the cardinal kept notes, which are now published as three books, Prison Journal, the first two of which are ranked first and second on Amazon’s best seller category for clergy.
Cardinal Pell “proclaimed Christ and the Church’s moral teachings without fear and with full knowledge of what the cost would be. And he paid the price with good humor and, like Christ, a love of his enemies,” said Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ, the publisher of his books at Ignatius Press.
He expressed no rancor or anger against those responsible for his unjust imprisonment. His peace of mind was no doubt due to a deep humility and Christian optimism.
He also said that he was not treated harshly by others in prison during his stay. This no doubt contributed to his calling his term an “extended retreat.”
The cardinal’s journal entries about his term, which consisted of solitary confinement, are reflections on the Church’s liturgy, interactions with prisoners and others, and thoughts about current events in the Church and the world.
He said in Vol. 3 of his journal,
“Christ's teaching on suffering, beautifully spelt out by St. Paul, is what sustains me through the quiet and the tedium, although I am not starved, not maltreated, not even living in any special discomfort.”
During his prison term, Cardinal Pell watched TV, made phone calls, worked in the jail garden, worked out in the gym, and read some of the approximately 2,700 sympathetic letters he received.
Prison Work of the Order of Mercy
Have you ever ministered to prisoners?
Cardinal Pell’s reflections are helpful in our own prison ministry here at the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy. Since our charism, as Pope Francis told us in 2018, is that of redemptive service, we have been visiting prisoners throughout our eight-hundred-year ministry.
All I can say is that prison ministry is unique, sometimes disturbing, but also deeply gratifying.
We friars know what it’s look like to stare into the cold eyes of an unrepentant drug dealer or see the lost and tearful look of a young man who killed his wife in a fit of rage.
And we know what it’s like to hear the plaintive cries of a man falsely accused, and who must pay a price in a social system that is sometimes more interested in conviction than justice.
Oh, yes. Add to that the thankfulness of a broken man restored to friendship with Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Those of us who have never been in trouble with the law outside of a traffic ticket might have a stereotyped view of those behind bars. We may say, "they deserve it -- and more. Let them be punished beyond measure. Lock them up and throw away the key."
But our Lord Jesus Christ doesn’t see it that way.
There is always a need for redemptive love.
In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus told us that in order to avoid his judgment, we are to take care of the spiritual and bodily needs of others. These are the wants of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked…and the imprisoned.
“I was in prison and you came to me,” Our Lord said. (Matt. 24: 36)
Catholics know that visiting prisoners is one of the seven corporal works of mercy. In their commentary on corporal works, the U.S. Bishops say,
“People in prison are still people, made in the image and likeness of God. No matter what someone has done, they deserve the opportunity to hear the Word of God and find the Truth of the message of Christ.”
What do you feel about prisoners?
Maybe you have been a victim of crime of some sort…or experienced rough characters in school whom you figured would eventually wind up behind bars…or maybe you yourself have fallen afoul of the law and now look back with a repentant regret.
In the United States there are about two million prisoners on the federal, state and local levels. A lot who need a minister of Christ.
What would Jesus do?
Are you a single man looking for your God-given vocation?
Do you feel called to reach out to prisoners in need of God’s grace and redemption? Prison ministry is one of ways we friars at the Order of Mercy serve God in others, along with hospital work, parish work, teaching in schools and doing other administrative work.
Have you thought that God may be calling you to become a Mercedarian friar?
The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, also known as the Order of Mercy, was founded in 1218 in Spain. We have friars who are priests and brothers.
In the United States, Mercedarian friars serve in parishes, prisons, hospitals, schools and other institutions in Ohio, Pennsylvania New York, and Florida. As part of our charism of redemptive love, we have a sincere devotion to Mary and to the Eucharist.
Single Catholic men age 18 – 40 who think they may have a Mercedarian vocation are invited to visit the website of the Mercedarian Friars USA at OrderofMercy.org. Contact me, Fr. Daniel Bowen, vocation director, at email@example.com.
Or Test Your Call to the Mercedarian Friars and get your score.
Learn more about the Friars at these sites as well:
YouTube: Mercedarian Friars USA