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Sometimes your neighbor really is your neighbor. Sometimes a prisoner really is a prisoner.
Recently, I came to the conclusion that when we hear the exhortation to love our neighbor, we easily shift into the conclusion that our neighbor is “the other” – as in “the Samaritan” or the stranger or someone we haven’t considered before.
In reality, our neighbor is literally our neighbor — the people who live across the street, or next door, or on the same block.
Oftentimes, when we hear homilies or read reflections on “visiting the imprisoned,” the conclusion is that many of us, maybe all of us, are imprisoned in some way. We are held captive by poverty, by addictions, by lack of health care, by prejudice and other external forces. That may be true, but the reality is that there are people in prison. Really. There are people behind walls and bars. And they are there, at least many of them, for good reasons.
That thought struck home when I received a letter from a prisoner, Erick Schmitt, at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facilty in Carlisle, Ind. Schmitt is a convicted killer connected to the death of a convenience store clerk.
Schmitt has acknowledged drug use, but owns up to his own reponsibility.
Schmitt, born and raised a Catholic, participated in the “Why Catholic?” program introduced at the prison through the efforts of Benedictine Sister Geraldine Hedinger.
Sister Geraldine became a victim of cancer, not of murder. Her death affected many people, but not as much as her life.
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In his letter to the editor, Schmitt said that Sister Geraldine was “profoundly beautiful in her unquestioning faith and devotion to God’s calling in her life. God spoke, she listened. The community at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility felt her presence. She was one of those nameless miracle-working wonders.
“Always listening and never denying God’s great will, Sister Geraldine touched my life in ways that only God could have orchestrated.”
Sister Geraldine connected the convicted killer in prison with a spiritual director.
“I have grown by leaps and bounds since that fateful meeting. It was God in her that provided me with that perfect, harmonious balance. Since then, that spiritual director has become a regular volunteer at the prison, mentoring five men and teaching numerous classes. Like ripples in a pond, Sister Geraldine’s effect will continue to make waves in the hearts of everyone.
“She not only visited me, she took that commission to heart and welcomed us into her life. Her mission was to educate and bring the community behind these walls closer under God with the knowledge of the Catholic faith and tradition. Through her tireless love, Sister Geraldine accomplished that mission by touching countless lives.”
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The people across the street are our neighbors. The man or woman in prison is really behind bars. The unjust suffering of innocent victims tears at our hearts, but the justly imposed punishment of the guilty does not remove the dignity of a brother or a sister. Or take away the relationship we have among all the children of God. We are brothers and sisters of the Lord.
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Reflect on these words from the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 53):
“But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.
“We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the LORD laid upon him the guilt of us all.”
Reflect on these words, then follow the Gospel exhortation and take the time to visit the imprisoned.
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