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Finding God in the abyss: When prison becomes a place of conversion

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STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP

Raphaëlle Coquebert - published on 11/21/21

With the help of dedicated chaplains, the Light makes its way in, and the Holy Spirit turns hearts around.

Fr. Éric Venot-Eiffel knows how to care for those who are in the most spiritual need. He’s made Blessed Pierre Claverie’s idea his own: “We are more Christian than ever when we put our lives on the line where humanity is wounded.”

Venot-Eiffel has been, among other things, a volunteer with the Little Brothers of the Poor during his student years, a chaplain at a palliative care facility from 2001 to 2005, and the chaplain of a prison in the west of France (2012-2020). He has written especially about his most recent ministry, both difficult and luminous, in his second book, Derrière les hauts murs (“Behind the High Walls”).

Seeing beyond their actions

With a phrase from the New Testament as his only mantra—”If your heart condemns you, know that God is greater than your heart” (see 1 Jn 3:20)—this pastor spent eight years meeting prisoners to bring them comfort and to discover in them, behind their sordid acts, the trace of their dignity as children of God. 

It was often an arduous or seemingly futile task, but its fruitfulness was sometimes forcefully revealed, as in this letter he quotes from a prisoner he calls simply “R”:

“We are without morale, dispossessed of everything, alone in our cell. (…) On Sunday mornings, when Mass comes, it’s a deliverance, a moment of sharing, a communion, a pleasure to be together (…) Thanks to the priest, I’ve learned to forgive. Wanting someone to forgive us without us forgiving ourselves had become nonsensical for me. I owe this change to the Father, to Christians and to the Gospels.”

From this “universe of suffering and night,” Fr. Eric, who sees himself as “pouring out grace,” shares some moving testimonies proving that it’s possible to extricate oneself from one’s past in order to “be reborn from above.” 

From darkness to life

For example, “P” recalled Fr. Eric’s first visit to his cell:

“At the end, he said to me, ‘In the name of God, I forgive you for all the evil you have done.’ And I cried. The priest had healed my heart and soul (…) I felt I was in a new world. God, in all his mercy (…) had just welcomed me with open arms.”

Fr. Eric also cites the words of “B,” 45 years old, whose serious psychiatric problems led him to kill the mother of his two children:

“I approached the Catholic prison chaplaincy (…). We knew that we were being accompanied by human beings driven by a benevolent mystical force: God. (…) I still don’t know who I am, except that I am more than my sins. (…) I know that God can guide me.”

This is a beautiful tribute to all those Christians who, driven by an inextinguishable faith in God and in humanity which, reach out to those who seem to have no human face anymore, but whom God visits and raises up.

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