Prison no. 22, located in Pot’ma, over 400 km south of Moscow, is not big. It houses 250 inmates divided into four two-story buildings and looks like a small village surrounded by high walls of sheet metal, with the top covered by barbed wire. Wretchedness makes the flowers that the prisoners cultivate in the summer more beautiful in the areas surrounding various buildings, like a ray of sunlight passing through darkness and gloominess.
Until two years ago, the prison housed only foreigners. Thus the inmates there are all Catholics who were condemned by the Russian Federation. This is why the priest who had taken care of the inmates before me for many years had been able to build a small Catholic Church next to the Orthodox Church. Last summer, thanks to donations offered by the Italian community in Moscow, prisoners, filled with overwhelming passion, could restore what they saw as their church. “Within these walls I feel free,” acknowledged Adam, a Polish man showing me the work they had done. It was our last meeting. A few days later, he received extradition and returned to his country.
Inmates come for a meeting within this church’s four walls. They arrive one by one after having received permission from the director of the education department. They are usually ready by the time I get there. I greet them and hear their confessions in the confessional. The first person comes. C. had told me that he had not confessed before because he was afraid that I would think differently of him. We all fear being judged by our limitations. It is an inescapable fear of those who do not recognize or do not know that God became man so that sin does not have the last word on our lives. After hearing confessions, I celebrate the Holy Mass. The homily is the catechesis I had given while sitting with them on the bench. Afterwards, we have a snack of tea and the few things they allow me to bring: salami, cheese, fruit, and chocolate…
In March, 25-year-old Garcia came. He is from from Mexico City where he was in his second year in the Faculty of Mathematics and Cybernetics. He is in Moscow through a cultural exchange. They sentenced him to twelve years in strict regime prison for possession of a few grams of heroin. The punishments linked to drugs are very strict in Russia. Garcia’s friend collaborated with the police and helped reduce his sentence. He has a shattered life: in prison one cannot continue studying. Faced with Garcia’s suffering, I realized that though youth can have a positive impact on a person’s existence, a young person can still feel a terrible sense of helplessness. No condition can erase the need for happiness which God creates in us. It is not human to put this desire aside for years or even a single day, waiting for conditions to be created that are favorable to the fulfillment of this need.
“Father, I can’t take it anymore!”
“Garcia, do not despair. Do not let anyone deprive you of freedom and the chance to be happy even here, even in this pain. Ask Christ to live these years not as if in a pit, but as a way to your fulfillment. This is the challenge Jesus throws at you. You, like me and like everyone else, need to be happy now, not when you get out of here! ”
When I talk to the detainees, it is clear to me that anyone who has lost hope cannot find it alone. It is necessary that it reaches you through somebody. This is the case with Garcia and me. I too am tempted to think that my happiness lies beyond what I live now or in the fruits of my work, putting the One who gives meaning to everything on the side.
Frenk is from Cameroon. He has not participated in our meetings for several months because he is in solitary confinement for misconduct. After many requests, they finally allowed me to meet him for a few minutes. A policeman escorted me, from one gate to another, along a path that reminded me of Dante’s circles of hell. The cell is completely enclosed by a security door. They had not told him I’d be coming. I will never forget the surprised and happy look he gave me when his eyes met mine. The room was very small, comprised of a table, a chair, and a board on the wall that becomes a bed at night, but without a mattress.
“Father, what can you do for me?” Frenk asked me after a long moment of silence.
“I can hear your confession,” I answered. He literally fell on his knees and I absolved him behind the bars after listening to his sins. I am finding that each one of us can be happy, each of us can be happy, even in the most dire of circumstances. You must simply recognize that someone who is present today cares about your destiny and loves you.
(Photo Andrey – flickr.com)