Praying for Prisoners

Outside the Delaware Valley in Pennsylvania, few will know of the story of R. Seth Williams, the two-term Philadelphia district attorney whose political career once held promise beyond measure. After his trial that was aborted after his surprise plea of guilt for, among other things, accepting bribes, he now sits in a prison cell 23 hours a day, permitted just one hour of exercise beyond the small walls of his confinement.

Winning two elections, Seth was at one time respected by a significant number of voters. Now, he is reviled by many of the people who misplaced their trust in him. He is guilty.

Today in the United States, one out of every 100 adults is incarcerated. Most agree that prisoners are among the least respected members of our society. Yet, for Jesus, they became a group who requires our care and attention. His inclusion of the imprisoned among those who are the least of his brothers and sisters in Matthew 25, where he discusses the final judgment, essentially elevates those behind bars to people whose letters of recommendation could aid our advance to heaven.

We may be quick to judge the incarcerated and to cast them aside, out of sight, out of mind. We may say there are consequences to our actions. St. Paul reminds us: "Whatever a man sows, he will reap in return" (Gal 6:7). Nevertheless, we cannot overlook what Jesus has taught us throughout the Gospel, which calls to be quick to visit and pray for them. Our system of criminal justice has incarcerated over 2.3 million people, more than any other country in the world, filling our prisons to overflowing levels and disproportionately with the poor, the mentally ill, minorities, and sometimes, yes, even people who have experienced grave injustices themselves. Pope Francis' many visits to prisons, especially during the Sacred Triduum on Holy Thursday, reminds us of our connection to and responsibility for prisoners.

During a week when we celebrate our freedom and independence as a nation, let us remember those millions who live everyday behind prison walls across our country. Let us remember, contemplate even, that each one is a human being, one of God's children, just like each of us.

With Jesus as our savior, we know that his life, death, and resurrection are more powerful than any bad choice we make or unjust situation in which we find ourselves, no matter how evil. Indeed, our truest freedom comes from a God of gentleness, mercy, and compassion, gifts we are called to share generously with those who are the least of our brothers and sisters.