In January I journeyed to New Mexico to attend a Memorial Mass for a priest who died in prison. His name will be omitted here because of his family’s concerns about hate groups. Father was the first incarcerated priest to write to me when I reached out to ask how priests were being treated in prison. He never asked for sympathy. He was forthright about his imprisonment, other inmates, and he answered all of my questions. We wrote regularly to each other as friends until his death late last year.
Father died in November but we didn’t learn of his death until mid-December when a priest friend of his went to the prison to visit him. He walked out of the prison in shock and numb. He telephoned me as he sat in a nearby park and we cried together as we mourned the death of our friend.
In January this priest arranged for a Memorial Mass to be held for Father in New Mexico. On January 28, 2009, four noble priests of the order of Melchizedek concelebrated a Mass for Father. Also present were three women there to honor a man and a priest who had been so vilified. Due to the past negligence of the diocese in New Mexico, we concluded that permission to have a Mass said for Father in a Catholic Church would have been refused, so the Mass was held at another location. Those present came from California, Texas, New Mexico and Indiana.
The readings for that day spoke of priests and seeds planted and nourished, as we remembered Father's joy in the small garden he planted and tended. On the altar were flowers and a framed watercolor painted by Father, a gifted artist. Our Mass cards featured an exquisite water color painting done by him. Some letters written to us by him were laid at the base of the "altar." Those letters spoke of his dark night of the soul, his love of his priesthood and his faith, his angst over his sins, his search for forgiveness, and his acceptance of his punishment. Pain hung heavy in that room. One celebrant asked if a man should be remembered for the worst thing he ever did and no thought be given to the good things he did. We remembered Father for his priestly ministry that he tried hard to live.
As we prayed and sang, I felt like the early Christians must have felt when they met in secret in the catacombs. Twice I heard loud sounds from somewhere in the building and I wondered if our Mass was going to be disrupted by hateful factions. After Mass the seven of us went to the cemetery to visit Father’s grave where we placed flowers, prayed, and sang. Each of us knelt for a moment and touched his grave. We were not able to be with Father when he died, but we were with him that day, and he was certainly with each one of us.
This priest’s suffering went beyond his prison sentence. His talented fingers were broken once when he refused to give an inmate some of his artwork. On a visit to a doctor, his ankles and legs were shackled so tightly that the doctor was unable to examine him and complained to the warden. He was never taken back to the doctor. Instead, every morning he was given an aspirin and some “lotion” for his legs. Nobody in the diocese cared enough to check on him, despite phone calls asking them to do so.
In his final days, a guard put him in solitary for a trumped-up charge. He was supposed to be there for two days, but he was “forgotten” and left there for two weeks. There were apologies, but at that point Father had lost his will to live.
On November 13, Father wrote what would be his last letter to the priest who visited him monthly. In the letter he indicated that he had made funeral arrangements because, “I feared the New Mexico prison system will treat my dead body with the same disrespect with which they have treated my living body.” He died of a broken heart. He is buried in a plot donated by an order of nuns.
There is no doubt in my mind that this wounded priest is in heaven with our Lord.
In Psalms 85 we are told that – “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss.” I pray that it will happen during our lifetime.
*You Are Mine”
by David Haas