John Lonergan was governor of Mountjoy, Ireland’s largest prison, for almost a quarter of a century. His account of his life in the prison service, The Governor, is a very interesting read. It seems that many of the good initiatives he took to promote the rehabilitation of prisoners were later reversed. The reason given was the shortage of funding in economically difficult times but one cannot help feeling that another reason motivating it was the view (surprisingly expressed to Lonergan by young people visiting the prison) that the things he was doing were ‘too good’ for prisoners. It seems as if society wants its prison walls large and secure, and does not much care what goes on inside them as long as it is not ‘too good’ for prisoners.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that punishment has three purposes: to protect society from people who are dangerous, to re-establish a balance of justice that has been disturbed, and to re-habilitate criminals so that they can return to living in the community.
Today’s readings invite a reflection on prisons and on the administration of justice. Paul and Silas, like Peter before them, end up in prison and are miraculously freed. One of the works of the Messiah is to set captives free and to lead out from the darkness of the dungeon those who languish there (Isaiah 42:7; 61:1-2). One of the ways in which human beings serve the Messiah is by visiting those who are in prison (Matthew 25:39,44). Peter’s miraculous liberation recounted in Acts 12, and that of Paul and Silas recounted in today’s first reading (Acts 16), are thus signs that the messianic age has arrived. Along with the other wonderful works the Messiah does is the freeing of prisoners, and here it is, happening before our eyes.
There is a poignancy earlier on when the imprisoned John the Baptist asks about Jesus and is told that he is doing all those things foretold of the Messiah – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them (Matthew 11:5). The striking omission from this list, which clearly echoes the texts of Isaiah referred to above, is the liberation of those in prison. It seems cruel, to say to the Baptist that the Messiah is carrying out everything foretold of him except the one thing in which John has the deepest personal interest. It gives added weight to Jesus’ concluding statement: ‘blessed is he who takes no offence at me’ (Matthew 11:6).
What might be going on here? The liberations of Peter, and of Paul and Silas, are presented as participations in the resurrection. Although not physically dead, the apostles are confined in places of darkness, removed from life, paralysed and held in chains. It seems that it is only after the Son of Man has himself been imprisoned, done to death, sent to the place of darkness, removed from life, paralysed, and has risen to glory from that place, that the full liberating power of the Messianic kingdom is unleashed on the world. Now the places of deepest darkness can also be visited and healed (he went to preach to the spirits in prison, we are told in 1 Peter 3:19).
In the freeing of Peter, and of Paul and Silas, we see dramatic displays of power – foundations shaking, chains falling off, doors being thrown open. But it is a power that is only constructive, leading to reconciliation, freedom, and faith. Those who work with prisoners seek to establish the same things for them and in them. This is not to be naïve about crime or its consequences but simply to recognize that nobody falls outside the reach of God’s saving care.
The gospel reading today teaches us that the Advocate Jesus will send, the Spirit of Truth, is as much a counselor for the prosecution as he is for the defence. He will convict the world in regard to sin, righteousness and condemnation. He will establish justice, in other words. Only on such a basis – on the basis of truth – can human community flourish and progress. Faith and hope and love strengthen us in relation to Truth, convincing us of its supreme power, and re-assuring us that it illuminates even the darkest of prisons.