Celebrating the Year of Mercy
Pope Francis continually reminds us that the Church is missionary and is called to reach out to the poor, to sinners, to unbelievers and to those who live on the margins of modern society. In 2016 Pope Francis called the Church to celebrate a Year of Mercy and to discover once again the importance of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The Jubilee Year of Mercy was a unique opportunity for the Church in Chile to be missionary and to reach out to those who feel that there is no place for them in society.
The Archdiocese of Santiago is divided into seven territorial vicariates. The most recent vicariate to be established in the Archdiocese of Santiago is the Vicaria del Maipo (Maipo Vicariate) where I am privileged to be the Episcopal Vicar. Our Vicariate is located on the southern outskirts of the sprawling city of Santiago and includes two very different municipalities: Puente Alto (the most populated municipality in the country) and San José del Maipo (a rural municipality nestled in a canyon of the Andes Mountains). Our Archbishop, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati invited each Vicariate of the Archdiocese to emphasize one of the corporal works of mercy and to implement that particular work of mercy in a special way. The priests, Sisters, deacons and lay pastoral agents of the Vicariate of Maipo decided that we were called to live out the corporal work of mercy: to visit the imprisoned.
We based our decision on the fact that Puente Alto has a prison with 1300 male inmates. It was built to house 700 inmates. With nearly double the number of inmates for which the prison was designed, the men are condemned to live in overcrowded conditions in large dormitories with bunk beds. Each bunk bed has mattresses for three men. The man on the top can touch the ceiling with his nose! The food rations provided by the prison authorities leave a lot to be desired, and so the inmates rely on their families to bring them food which they cook and share among themselves. Many of the inmates come from the Columban parishes of San Matías and Santo Tomás.
When I returned to the Maipo Vicariate after four years as the Episcopal Vicar of the Southern Zone, I brought with me a frightening memory. On December 8, 2010, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, there was a fire in the San Miguel prison and 81 inmates were burnt to death. It was caused by a fight among the inmates. Some of the prisoners had built a flame thrower using the gas canisters of their little kitchen. The flames ignited mattresses. The fire was so intense that the gates of the prison cell could not be opened. I went to the prison and spent the day consoling families who had lost their sons, husbands or brothers to the fire. I went with Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz to the area of the prison where the charred bodies of the dead prisoners were being kept. Cardinal Errazuriz prayed for the dead and blessed the bodies of the victims of the fire. After that experience, I could not ignore any longer the plight of the men and women who are deprived of their liberty for the crimes which they committed. As Pope Francis teaches us, no matter what sins we may commit we are never excluded from the love or the mercy of God.
Not long after returning, I visited the prison in Puente Alto. I discovered that a small group of Catholics were visiting the prison every Wednesday. I met with them and we began to explore ways of increasing the number of pastoral agents for this apostolate. Then the merciful Lord sent us a great blessing. A new chaplain was appointed to the prison, Fr. Armando. Padre Armando is a native of Iquique in northern Chile, and in his youth he participated actively in the Columban parish of Espíritu Santo. Fr. Armando proudly claims that he owes his vocation to Columban Father Hugh McGonagle who accompanied him in his discernment about the priesthood while he was in the seminary and in his early years as a priest.
Together with Fr. Armando, the Vicariate of Maipo organized workshops and courses on prison apostolate increasing the number of lay pastoral visitors from seven to 30. The increase in volunteers has meant that four days a week Catholic prisoners can avail of spiritual accompaniment and prayer. When Fr. Armando arrived in Puente Alto, the small Catholic chapel was in deplorable condition. The Maipo Vicariate made a commitment to raise funds to repair and renovate the prison chapel. So far we have raised more than $600,000 pesos (around $850.00 U.S.) for the renovation. On August 12, 2016, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati visited the prison and celebrated the Eucharist for the prisoners. He also blessed the chapel's new tabernacle which was donated by the Apostolic Works of Ennis, Co. Clare in Ireland. Cardinal Ezzati called on the inmates not to lose heart nor lose the faith: "I want to encourage each one of you to develop all your abilities so that you can become new men, so that you can live happily with your families. Believe firmly that God can give you that possibility."
During the same month of August, we organized a campaign in our parishes to donate toiletries for personal use: toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, toilet paper, shampoo etc. In all our parishes there was a generous response. I joked with Fr. Armando that his inmates have the cleanest hair and the whitest teeth in Chile!
In September, a religious sister of St. Ann, Sister Maria Luz Treupil, came to our Vicariate to work in prison ministry. She had spent many years in this ministry in the prison of the northern city of Antofagasta. While she was there, she began a choir and taught some of the younger inmates to play the guitar. Eventually, they produced a CD. Sr. Maria Luz hopes to repeat that experience in Puente Alto. On December 19, we organized a Christmas party for the inmates who regularly attend Mass together with members of their families. Finally, for the first time ever in the pastoral life of our Vicariate, the Summer School for the Laity will offer two courses in the prison for the men.
As the Jubilee Year of Mercy came to an end, Pope Francis wrote a Pastoral Letter, "Misericordia et Miseria." There is no doubt that prisons are necessary in society but we also need to remember: "No law or precept can prevent God from once more embracing the son (daughter) who returns to him, admitting that he has done wrong but intending to start his (her) life anew." ("Misericordia et Miseria" no.11)
Columban Fr. Michael J. Hoban lives and works in Santiago, Chile.