On Thursdays, we friars visit Central Prison near downtown Raleigh and celebrate mass for between 6-8 inmates on Death Row. We are escorted by a prison chaplain to a multipurpose room on the second floor of the prison. In the room are a fold-up table, blue plastic chairs, plain cinderblock walls, and high up on the walls, narrow windows that let in sunlight.
I was there a week ago Thursday. Around noon, the inmates file in, wearing red jumpsuits.The nondescript room becomes, for a time, a makeshift church, as we set out the wine and the hosts. The first and second readings and the responsorial psalm are read by the inmates. After I read the gospel and say a few words, there is time for any of the inmates to offer their own reflection. The gospel we hear is last week’s – the story of the widow whose son has died and of the presence and compassion of Jesus as he comes upon the scene (Luke 7:11-17).
There is some time of quiet and then one of the inmates speaks. He has picked up on one of the lines from the gospel. He says, Jesus, as he watches this funeral procession leave the city, has pity on the mother, a widow who has lost not only her husband but now also her son.
And then the inmate speaks about his own mother. He is reflective. He knows why he is on Death Row. He looks around the table and says – the things I’ve done, the hell that I have put her and other people through, and still, every day, that woman prays for me without fail. Who am I to deserve anything like that?
The room falls silent for a time. I imagine, somewhere in rural North Carolina, a woman and her prayers for her son, a son who she knows she will never have back, and yet still she prays, and for what? Can there be any kind of hope or any kind of grace for mother or for son in something like this? Why pray at all?
There will be no reunion for this mother and son in this life, no ending like the story in the gospel in which the son is given back to his mother, but there is something about the deep reflection of this man on Death Row, admitting his guilt, admitting his need for forgiveness and mercy, humbled by the faithful devotion of someone in the far countryside who loves him, something about all of that that is its own kind of miracle of grace and mercy and hope.
A few of the other inmates speak, and then the mass continues – a shared sign of peace, the words, “Lord I am not worthy to enter under your roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” There is a breaking of the bread, a drinking from the cup, a shared communion. Those words “I am not worthy…” linger awhile. How does this inmate hear those words?
How do any of us hear those words?
Not worthy, and yet – an invitation to come in under the roof of mercy and of healing, the miracle of faraway prayers from a grieving mother, prayers that any person’s life is not defined by a single act but that God’s grace is always present, never dwelling on the past, always forming us new.