Sunday, 06 February 2011 00:00
The prophet Isaiah instructs the faithful of Israel, “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and homeless, clothe the naked”, moral commands that are shared by various religious traditions. But two aspects of Isaiah’s injunctions are quite ironic. First, his addressees are not the wealthy and influential, but rather, deportees in Babylon. He directs the dispossessed, impoverished and oppressed Israelites to give to the hungry and care for the exploited, to be charitable to those who share their miserable lot.
Second, he cites the fruits of caring for the destitute, despite one’s own neediness: “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed … and the gloom shall become for you like midday.” Paradoxically, Isaiah maintains that our own afflictions are healed not by attending directly to them, but by attending to those of others. The remedy for self-misery is attentiveness to the misery of others.
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As part of our Jesuit Tertianship Program, I am fortunate to be ministering, together with my two younger Jesuit brothers, Fr. Oliver Dy and Fr. Joseph Haw, and the chaplain, Msrg. Roberto Olaguer, to the inmates at the New Bilibid Prison in Muntinlupa for three weeks.
Erected in 1940 on 551 hectares of idle land, the New Bilibid Prison, at present, houses roughly 20,000 inmates, more than 12,000 in the maximum security compound, around 6,000 in medium security, roughly 700 in minimum security, and over 1,000 in the Reception and Diagnostic Center, where new convicts are processed.
Many readily admit guilt, others minimize their offenses, and still others claim innocence. Many express remorse for their crimes, others rage for allegedly having been falsely accused and unjustly convicted, still others despair over having lost all that is dear to them — family, a sense of dignity and a tomorrow. As I listen to their wrenching stories of momentary rage and a lifetime of regret, to their heart-breaking accounts of abandonment and despair, I cry with them, despair with them, pray with them and hope anew with them.
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Inside the maximum security is the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes, with all the requisite ministries of regular parishes — worship, education, service and temporalities. However, all the lay ministers, lectors, commentators, altar servers, and choir members are inmates serving lifetime sentences.
With the reinstatement of the death penalty during the Ramos administration, seven inmates, during the Estrada administration, were put to death by lethal injection. However, with the abolishment of the death penalty in 2006, the sentences of 1,230 inmates were commuted to life imprisonment. Many of them are now active ministers of the Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel. In fact the eighth and ninth in line for execution by lethal injection, no longer dead men walking, are officers of the pastoral council.
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Having stared death in the eye, many of the inmates have truly repented and been converted. Though incarcerated, they themselves minister to fellow inmates. Freed from despair by God’s grace, they now comfort the despairing. Freed from self-hatred, they now attend to those consumed by self-loathing. In them I have witnessed the hungry feeding the hungry; the thirsty giving drink to those thirsting. For those who have truly repented and reformed, even though they continue to serve life sentences, the “gloom” has become for them “like midday”.
A far more disturbing question is posed by those who maintain innocence and claim having been unjustly convicted. Given the lapses in our legal system—incompetence, fallibility and outright corruption — theoretically, it is possible that some inmates are indeed victims of injustice. Some of those who claim innocence continue to rage over their alleged unjust conviction. Others, by grace, have transcended anger and despair and have found meaning in serving in one of the church ministries. Some of these men may be truly victims of injustice, yet minister to other victims, and, incredibly, to victimizers. I believe Muntinlupa houses some men of solid character and special grace — innocent men who care for the guilty, victims who comfort victimizers, the unjustly convicted who minister to the justly punished.
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Salt of the earth, light of the world. An inmate describes Muntinlupa as the garbage dump of human trash. Yet, amongst the human debris of society, the miserable care for the wretched. Light shines not only from above, but from the dark alleys of human misery.
Published: The Philippine Star