A Lenten retreat at Kaitoke Prison in Whanganui became so popular with prison inmates that the number of retreatants doubled by the end of the weekend.
The prison’s Catholic chaplain, Sr Litia of the Sisters of Compassion, invited me to lead a retreat for inmates of the maximum security unit.
Although I had spent some years as social worker at the Manawatu Prison in the 1980s I still wondered what I was letting myself in for by responding to this request. Sr Litia is well respected by both staff and inmates and this made my part easy.
Throughout the three days of the retreat I was also very aware of the prayer support of Carmelites, Benedictines, Cistercians and Franciscans, of the Mercy Sisters in Upper Hutt, parishioners in the parishes of our diocese and of my good friend Fr Shaun Hurley.
On the Friday morning nine men chose to begin the retreat and we reflected on the theme of Pope Benedict’s first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).
The following morning there were 15 for the Mass which Msgr David Bell celebrated with former prison chaplain, Michael Coleman.
In the afternoon we reflected on the Stations of the Cross using the World Youth Day presentation. The retreatants were visibly moved by this wonderful presentation of Christ’s Passion.
Word of the retreat must have got around the prison because on Sunday morning we had 18 inmates for our Palm Sunday liturgy.
The 15 minutes of silent contemplation that followed the reading of the Passion obviously touched these men who later shared something of their experience. The retreat ended with a reflection on Pope Benedict’s message of hope from his second encyclical letter ( Spe Salvi).
This retreat has taught me that when we break through the masks we wear we find that, in every human person, there is still a presence of that beautiful individual whom God called into existence at the moment of their conception. This must be why Christ said, ‘I was in prison and you visited me’.
Rex Begley is bishop’s assistant for Retreats in Daily Life.