An Early Christmas
December 5, 2002
An Early Christmas
The Green Haven Prison in Stormville is a frightening place. It is surrounded by massive grey walls, entered through heavy iron gates and guarded by a sinister series of turrets atop the corners of the walls. We arrived at 8:30 in the morning on Nov. 21. The sky was overcast and threatening as we waited just inside the outer gates to have our hands stamped with an ink that a special ultra-violet machine would be able to detect.
The superintendent of the prison greeted us along with his senior staff members. We then moved inside to meet the chaplain and the priests and deacons from the nearby parishes in Ulster County who had come for the Mass, which was scheduled at 10 o'clock.
I had been to other prisons in my two-and-a-half years in the archdiocese, but somehow none seemed so dark and menacing as this one. I could not say why. The superintendent and his staff were most welcoming. The prison is blessed with a splendid chapel that was tastefully decorated for the Mass. Twelve of the inmates were servers vested in cassocks and fresh, white surplices. A musical group made up of guitars, horns, violins, drums and a little electric organ was leading the community in a familiar hymn. And the prisoners were all in their places in the pews, some of them stretching their hands out into the aisle to shake mine as the procession made its way to the altar.
Still, I felt uneasy. A cloud seemed to be hanging over the chapel. I had come to celebrate Mass, and for whatever reason "celebration" did not appear to be a fair description of what I was about to do.
The Mass began at the appointed hour. It was in both English and Spanish. My intention had been to focus the homily on the verses about the Good Thief from the Gospel according to St. Luke. As the Gospel book was brought to me to be kissed, however, I changed my mind. This was no time for commenting on a tragic episode from the New Testament which the inmates had probably heard discussed more often than any other. What was needed was a story with a hopeful message. I pocketed my homily notes, moved into the center aisle, and spoke rather about the First Reading, a passage from the Epistle of St. Paul to Philemon. It is an upbeat tale about two men outside the law. I would let it speak for itself with little interference from me.
The year is A.D. 65. Paul of Tarsus, the great Apostle of the Gentiles, is in Rome under house arrest. He resides in a private apartment but spends his days and nights shackled to a Roman guard. He is awaiting trial, a trial that will end in his death.
One morning a stranger knocks at his door. He is a runaway slave who has stolen money from his master in Colossae, and he is terrified that he will be caught. The punishment would be hard labor in the mines with the letter "F" branded into his forehead, "F" for "fugitive."
The slave's name is Onesimus, which in Greek means "useful." His master, a wealthy Colossian by the name of Philemon, is a friend and convert of Paul's. Onesimus falls on his knees before the saint and begs him to intervene on his behalf. Paul agrees and immediately, in the presence of Onesimus, sits down to pen one of the loveliest pieces of literature in all of Sacred Scripture, the Epistle to Philemon.
Paul begins by flattering Philemon in the style of the Roman rhetoricians of his day. He then gets to the heart of the matter. With delicacy and urgency he asks Philemon to take Onesimus back‹not as a slave, however, but rather as a brother in Jesus Christ. He tells Philemon that he is confident that his request will be honored, given all the kindnesses he has shown his Colossian friend over the years, especially that of bringing him to the Lord. He kids Philemon about making Onesimus "useful" to his salvation because of this pious act of compassion. And he concludes by promising to cover the cost of whatever Onesimus has stolen. "Charge it to my account," he writes, one suspects with tongue in cheek.
The outcome? Onesimus returns to Philemon, is baptized, and in due course becomes the heroic Bishop of Ephesus about whom St. Ignatius of Antioch writes in a letter to the faithful of Ephesus on his way to martyrdom in Rome.
This is the way Paul, a prisoner, dealt with a complete stranger and an outlaw in trouble, I told the inmates in the Green Haven prison. And this, I added, is the way each of us is to treat all in need who cross our path in life, no matter how badly they or any others may have treated us. We can be angry. We can be bitter. We can spend our lives imagining how we will one day settle scores, great and small. But if we follow this course, we are turning our back on Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave his life on the cross for all, even those who had wrongly accused and condemned him.
"Make Paul, the prisoner shackled to a guard, your model," I begged the congregation. "He was suffering as you are suffering, and he was suffering as unjustly as anyone in chains ever suffered. Nonetheless, he had the strength of soul to set his own pain aside so as to come to the aid of another in pain. This is what made him a saint, and this is what will make saints of us."
Maybe it was just my imagination. Yet, somehow I felt a change in the atmosphere. I had told Paul's story. I had added little or nothing, and it seemed that the story had done what stories about saints are supposed to do. The offertory of the Mass began. The music became full-throated. The responses of the congregation were louder and clearer. I was no longer in a prison. I was in a house of the Lord filled with Pauls and Onesimuses, or at least so it seemed to me.
After the Mass, we moved into the gymnasium for coffee. I shook hundreds of hands, signed any number of programs, promised prayers and finally realized that we had gone beyond the time for our visit. As I began to move toward the gymnasium door, a young Hispanic approached me. "Feliz Navidad," he whispered. "And thank you for the story. It was a real nice Christmas present. I never knew that you could be a saint if you've been in prison."
He rubbed away tears with the sleeve of his bulky polo shirt and whispered once again. "Feliz Navidad, Padre, Feliz Navidad."
On Dec. 24, I will celebrate a Mass at midnight and on Dec. 25, I will celebrate another at 10:15 in the morning, both in St. Patrick's Cathedral. They will be my second and third Christmas Masses. I like to think that my first was on Nov. 21 in the Green Haven Prison.
Edward Cardinal Egan
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