A chaplain of a prison community writes about his experiences for a pastoral bulletin. The community is a very interesting one, he says, for the officers are elected by the community and are taken from the members with the heaviest sentences: it is only these members the community will follow. The president is the one who has a life sentence.
On Layman's Sunday, the prisoner president of the Catholic community gave the sermon, and his topic was the Ten Commandments. No problem with the first three, when he arrived at the fourth commandment, there was a change. He asked the congregation: "Who has obeyed their parents?" He asked them to raise their hands; nobody did. Since we are all in this place, he said, we have not been obedient.
When he began talking about the 5th commandment, he mentioned this was not easy, for as everybody knew he was in prison because of a killing. The priest lowered his head and kept himself from laughing. Why in the world would he pick such a topic? He couldn't understand. From the fourth to the tenth, in one way or another, they were the reason they were in prison: lack of filial piety, murder, fraud, sexual crime, theft, crimes against families, etc.... They did not raise their heads during the sermon nor did the priest, but the reasons were different. Those in the congregation didn't raise their heads because of shame, the priest looking at them was overcome with compassion as if the commandments were only for them and in no way related to himself and others. In his thoughts, he wondered: Were the commandments only for these prisoners? He really never considered himself a sinner. Although we continually say before God, we are all sinners. He has not committed any serious sins so for him the thought of confession was not welcomed.
Compared to them, he asks, is he a just person while the prisoners are sinners? Was he not like the Pharisee in the temple praying to God? He was embarrassed that his standard of judgement on what was sinful were the written laws of the country.
Time spent in faith sharing and discussing passages of Scripture with the prisoners, he sees their resolve not to sin again. At this time he appreciates why Jesus seemed to enjoy the company of the tax collectors and sinners.
When the prisoners are released the parting greeting is: "Let us not see each other here again." Discharged from prison they are not going out to a welcoming world. They will have to overcome the scornful looks of many. Society will look on them as outcasts and shunned. When they fall into sin again they will hear: "It is what we expected." Is it because people knew they would sin again that they shunned them? Is it not rather because they were shunned, they turned to crime?