I worked for 7 years as a prison chaplain in a maximum security prison in upstate New York. It was a part time position of 8 hours per week. This prison also had a hospital inside the facility. Seriously ill patients from other prisons across the state were sent to this prison hospital. Part of my responsibilities was to visit these inmate patients.
One of the patients was a man who was about 35 years old. I will call him Michael (not his real name). He was in jail because of repeatedly driving while drunk and in one crash someone died because of his drunken driving. While in prison, Michael was diagnosed with cancer and an incurable liver disease. The doctors determined that there was nothing they could do for him. His disease was too advanced. I would visit Michael almost every week and we would talk about his life, about his mother who was all alone, and about his struggle to understand why he was suffering.
At first he spoke about how he thought that God was punishing him for the way he had lived. He had never been very religious. He hadn’t been to church in many years. He was not even able to pray. Michael had a hard time believing that God still loved him or cared about him at all. I listened to his struggles and tried to share with him an image of a loving and forgiving God.
Finally, one week he asked me: “Do you think that God would ever forgive me for all the hurt I have brought upon my family and so many other people?” I assured him that Jesus came precisely to let sinners know they are forgiven and that God has a special love for sinners.
Slowly, he began to pray and even started attending the weekly Mass in the hospital. I asked him if he wanted to go to confession and receive the anointing of the sick. He agreed and, after confessing, he cried as I pronounced the words of absolution. He cried again as I anointed his forehead and hands with the oil of the sick. He was finally able to accept God’s forgiveness.
The correction officers (“guards”) ridiculed him for finding God in prison, his “jail house conversion.” They also told me that I was foolish to waste so much of my precious time with him. Some of the other inmates also ridiculed him. But many understood.
Then I worked with the nursing supervisor to try and get Michael released to the care of his mother. The state parole board refused his request for medical parole. We succeeded in getting him released to a nursing home where he could get better care during his last days on earth. At least he didn’t die in prison. After he died, I offered his funeral Mass at my parish church because he did not have a parish of his own.