After almost three hours of Mass in Tagalog with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, we finally started our drive to the Manila Minimum Security Detention Center.
I didn’t know what to expect. It isn’t my first experience in prison ministry but things are very different here in the Philippines.
The prison gates opened to a basketball court surrounded by rectangular buildings. Four of us missionaries divided ourselves into three groups, led by two Missionaries of Charity and a fifth missionary. We walked around the living quarters to invite people to Mass. We entered the rectangular “buildings” that look more like containers, with little air circulation, space and even light. Bunk beds were so close together that walking had to be done in one straight line. Mattresses consisted of thin plywood or cardboard and it didn’t take us much time to realize that those were the cells. Each unit has a “mayor” as they call the inmate in charge.
We proceeded to the main event of our visit: the Mass to celebrate Pentecost. Little by little, these very fragile bodies got out of their cells and walked towards the church at the left of the basketball court. Suddenly the chapel was full, more than 150 inmates. But what a surprise; all of them were old people. It felt more like in a retirement home than in prison.
Mass started, I stood up at the back waiting for the late arrivals that literally kept coming all the way to the very last Amen.
During Mass, I contemplated how the old prisoners were so fragile, simple and in a sense like little kids: innocent, dependent, simple, joyful. “Let the children come to me”, Jesus said. I kept looking at these convicted men. They were once children, but as they grew older, they changed, life happened and they became hard, mean and got in trouble with the law. They became murderers, rapists, thieves — and most of them have spent their adult life in prison.
Time passed and tough men became like “little children” once again, fragile, innocent, simple, dependent, joyful, all gathering around their Heavenly Father to praise and worship Him. I stood there watching them raise their wrinkled hands, singing along and praising the Lord. The words of Christ “Let the children come to me” kept pounding in my heart. I begged for the grace to cultivate and to keep a child-like heart, in a sense I prayed to “not grow up” and get lost in the world and loose that child-like spirit that will always keep me close to my Lord.
Let’s all try to cultivate a child-like heart and stay very close to our Lord. And like children, let us get closer to our Heavenly Father!