Christmas Masses in São Paulo Prisons

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We had a wonderful 2017 Christmas season serving in the prisons of São Paulo.  Maryknoll Lay Missioners participated in at least 14 Christmas-style masses during Advent.  For most of the men and women we meet in the Brazilian prisons, these celebration are the only mass and eucharist they will have all year.  There are not enough priests to have regular mass in the over 25 different cellblocks we are allowed to visit.

Normally, the masses are held in the small prison cells.  It is crowded, noisy, and very hot.  However, the masses were very well attended and extremely joyful as it gives the prisoners some time to reflect on the meaning of Advent and Christmas; prepare not only for another year in their very dark place, but more importantly, prepare for life on the outside.

At the end of each mass, we would sing O Come All Ye Faithful in English for them.  One of the priests we regularly visit is Italian and he loves to sing this song with us.  The prisoners’ eyes would light up at the sound of our off-key voices; they love hearing the English language.  It was especially meaningful when they joined us in singing the final Latin versus of “Venite Adoremus, Venite Adoremu, Venite Adoremu, Dominum”

We then asked them to sing a Brazilian Christmas song for us.  Normally it was Noite Feliz (Silent Night).  Here are the lyrics:

Noite feliz, noite feliz
Ó senhor, Deus de amor
Pobrezinho nasceu em Belém
Eis na lapa Jesus, nosso bem
Dorme em paz, ó Jesus
Dorme em paz, ó Jesus

Noite feliz, noite feliz
Ó Jesus, deus da luz
Quão afável é teu coração
Que quiseste nascer nosso irmão
E a nós todos salvar
E a nós todos salvar

Noite feliz, noite feliz
Eis que no ar vem cantar
Aos pastores, seus anjos no céu
Anunciando a chegada de Deus
De Jesus salvador
De Jesus salvador

Please continue to reflect and pray for the incarcerated who struggle mightily during these important religious seasons.

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A Place for Us by Fifi

(Tiago’s note–This is the fifth in a series of refections by women prisoners in Brazil.  The women have given their permission for this blog post although their names have been changed. 

In this reflection, Fifi shares the feeling she has being incarcerated shortly after losing her one-week old son.  Please think about and pray for the deceased child, the author “Fifi” and the other women in prisons throughout the world.  Let’s ask Him to provide them with the strength to carry on in these dark places.)

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To be a human is to feel pain, sadness, happiness, and love. But for me, feeling like a human sucks.

If I could go to heaven, I would tell my son how much I love him, I miss him, and ask him how he is doing.  I would ask him if he is happy and if he is proud of me for doing everything I could do until his last breath.

I also wanna tell him how proud I am of him, how he fought for his life, but it was not meant to be, to be a (long) life.

Then I want to come back to earth and live a life like a normal human being.  This is what it feels like to be a human right now for me.

Lost in Translation

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We usually get the notification in a WhatsApp group text message the morning of our Saturday visits;  Unfortunately, one more woman at Feminine Prison of Santana (PFS) has committed suicide.  This week it was the fifth suicide within the last two months.

Normally when we arrive after a suicide our team leader, Eliana, explains the few facts that she knows about the situation.  With my limited Portuguese capability I don’t catch all she knows but when I look around at Eliana and at the rest of our Prison Pastoral group, I always see the deep pain in everyone’s heart.  It often brings them to tears as we gather in the courtyard outside of the prison and pray for the women in PFS.  We hold each other’s hands reassuring each other that our work will make a small difference.

It personally jarred me this week when Eliana said the suicide occurred in the one (of six) pavilion where I make my visits.  I thought of the five or six women I normally visit with and selfishly hoped it was not one of them.  Eliana accompanied me and my partner Gianfranco to our pavilion in an effort to meet and talk to the woman inside. I breathed a sigh of relief as we entered the prison yard and accounted for all of “our girls.” They were waiting for us.

We set our small green stools down in a circle under the shade of the tall prison wall and invited the women over to the sit with us.  After our normal abraçoes (hugs) and warm greetings, the woman explained the latest suicide was by a girl named Michelli.  They did not know her very well because she was the kind of woman that kept mostly to herself but everyone knew of the occurrence and were very troubled.  Eliana did a marvelous job of talking them through the event and gently pushing them to help us understand why these woman take their own life.

Their only attempt at explanation was that the suicidal women lose all their hope and will to live while trying to survive in such a dark place.  They are never alone in prison, however they are always isolated; isolated from friends and family, isolated from the real world, and most important isolated from the their children.  Most of the woman we meet with are mothers.

As we talked about suicide and ways the woman can support each other in an effort to stop this epidemic I was reminded of my Air Force Suicide Prevention training and asked one woman, Andrea, if the prison administration helps them through these difficult situations.  She just said “Nao” and looked away.

We finished with our short liturgical celebration and prayed together; standing together in a circle, arm in arm, as we asked for their personal petitions before saying the Our Father and Hail Mary.  The woman were very happy to have the presence of the Prison Pastoral on that day and explained how they viewed us as their family.  One of the woman pulled out the postcard from Munich I had sent her while I was attending our family reunion.  It was a picture of Marienplatz and she said she cried when she received it because even her family does not send her letters.

They walked us to the barred prison door and we exchanged more abraçoes before the guard closed the door behind us after we crossed back through.  As we walked away, three of the girls were still watching and waving to us through the prison bars and I asked God to make it a long time before the next WhatsApp text notification.

Please pray for the women of Santana and especially Michelli

Anxious Parents

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“Hello, thank you for your message, when you are in touch and see “my daughter”, I feel calmer.”

Sometimes, I believe, the families of the foreign women we meet in their prison have it the hardest.

Please pray for the anxious parents.

The Wise Owl

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Mira signed her work, “Thank you for being so good friend.  Happy Birthday.  From Russia with Love.”   While it did not come from Russia, I knew what she meant.  It came from her…a Russian…and it came from her heart.  It was a birthday present for me and she was delighted to share her talents; a hand-drawn owl using only a simple black pen.  As we say in Mission, we often get more out of our work than the people we minister too. This drawing and her words are just another example.  спасибо (Thank you) Mira!

 

Prison Mass with Cardinal Odilo

 

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Maryknoll Lay Missioners recently joined the men of Pinheiros Prison in a Mass celebrated by the Cardinal of São Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer.   The original story, in Portuguese, is at the following link:

http://www.osaopaulo.org.br/noticias/nos-nao-nos-esquecemos-de-voces

Below is a translation of the story:

The Archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, presided over a Mass at the Provisional Detention Center (CDP) of Pinheiros, in the western zone of the capital, on Friday, 16 June 2017.

The Mass was co-celebrated by Father Valdir João Silveira, National Coordinator of the Prison Pastoral, and by Fathers Jorge Pierozan, Episcopal Vicar for the Lapa Region, Antonio Francisco Ribeiro, Antonio Ferreira Naves and Pedro Augusto Ciola de Almeida.  Penitentiary agents and members of the Prison Ministry participated in the celebration, as well as the CDP board of directors.

Divided into four units, the Pinheiros CDP has approximately 6,500 prisoners, most of whom are awaiting trial or transfer to other prisons to serve their sentence. The prisoners are distributed in different units according to the profile of the crime committed. The unit visited by the Archbishop, CDP 3, houses approximately 1,600 prisoners who have no connection with any criminal faction.

God wants to restore us.

“Today we are here to say that you have not been forgotten by God or by us, the Church. We do not forget you, “Bishop Odilo told the prisoners in his homily.

The Cardinal also made a reflection from the first reading of the Mass, extracted from the Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, in which the Apostle states that “we bring this treasure as in earthen vessels.”

“This treasure is our call to full life, to be with God, it is the grace of salvation that Christ deserved for us all with his cross,” said the Archbishop.

Bishop Odilo also recalled that, like earthen vessels, human beings are fragile and can break. “God wants to restore us from our frailties. Therefore, we must turn to him with humility, ask him for help, forgive us and feed us what is good, take care of that fragile vessel that we are, “he added.

The Archbishop also drew attention to the liturgical prayer of the day – “O God, source of all good, attend to our call and make us, by your inspiration, think what is right and carry it out with your help” , Inviting everyone to always seek the source of this good.

Meeting with Christ

“To accompany, to guide spiritually is to give an important meaning to life and to lead them to an encounter with Christ.” Thus Father Valdir summed up, in O SÃO PAULO, the mission of the Prison Ministry. He also explained that the Pastoral seeks to reduce the impact of violence and tensions within prisons. “The work with the prison is to evangelize and take care of the dignity of the prisoner,” he added.

He also pointed out that the demand for the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation is very great on the part of the prisoners, but the number of priests is insufficient to meet the demand. “Celebrations of the Word are celebrated every week by lay volunteers, but it is not always possible to celebrate masses and attend to the confessions of all.”

Father Valdir also said that the prisoner’s recovery process requires patience. “This process needs listening and openness to gather the person, so that it will gradually recover,” he said.

According to the priest, in these conversations and spiritual services, it is discovered that people are generally brought into the world of crime by the violence suffered in childhood and adolescence. “As a priest, I say that all the people I’ve heard to date have a history marked by violence from childhood,” added the National Coordinator, noting that the main objective is to recover the person so that it reconciles with itself, with the community And with God.

Father Valdir also stressed that visiting a prison is an opportunity for conversion also for volunteers. “We are with Christ behind the bars, even if the person is disfigured by sin, for it is the Gospel itself that says: I was arrested and you came to visit me,” he said.

Missionary Presence

Members of the Prison Pastoral visit the Pinheiros CDP twice a week. Among the volunteers are the couple James and Marilyn Kott, lay missionaries of Maryknoll, a group from the United States that operates in more than 20 countries. For a year and a half in Brazil, Americans attend individual prisoners, pray with them, and teach English classes. The couple reported that the missionary presence makes a difference in the prison unit. “We realize that they are calmer after our visit and prayer. The environment is different, people are less tense, “said Marilyn.

James emphasized that the reality of the jail leaves prisoners lacking quality human contact. “Sometimes we just call them by their name, shake their hands, put our hands on their shoulders so they feel valued,” he said. According to Ademir Muniz, director general of CDP 3, the work of the Prison Ministry is of paramount importance, because “it brings spiritual comfort to this people who are so lacking in support because they are all distant from their relatives and dear ones. ”

In addition to the visits to the prisons, it is possible to collaborate with the Prison Pastoral Care at a distance. There are many volunteers who help in the care of prisoners through correspondence. “They like to write a lot, especially when outsiders are willing to respond,” said Father Valdir. Another way to help is to welcome in the communities of prisoners, as well as to accompany their families, especially their children. The Prison Ministry also carries out a campaign of donation of books for prisoners, with the aim of encouraging reading that allows the remission of days of punishment for each work read by the prisoner by presenting a review on the subject of the book.

Message in a Bottle

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Diella (not her real name) wrote to me and said, “Tiago, this was really out of my comfort zone and I am not very good at putting my thoughts into words.  Yet I felt compelled to do it!”

Diella is a special friend from a long time ago;  another life really, and she took me up on my offer to send a short message or refection to the women prisoners we visit in São Paulo prisons.  I knew the girls would be so pleased with the words from someone on the outside, someone they had never met before, someone who showed they cared about them; but Diella was unsure.

Today, we brought 24 copies of her message with us to give to the women inside PFC, the Brazilian foreign-women’s prison where Maryknoll Lay Missioners visit on Saturday afternoons.  As I passed out the small notes with the short message to the English-speaking women, they were a bit stunned and really did not understand.  I explained that a “high-school” friend had written the note and was thinking about them and praying for them.  One of the girls from Cape Verde gave me a puzzled look and said, “You mean, Chicago?”  I said,”Yes” and they began to smile and read more intensely.  Most read the note with wonder before folding it up and saving it for later…when there would be more time.

Her words are a simple but very powerful message for the women we meet.  They live an extremely isolated life; isolated from their children, their families, and their friends.  Communication with the outside world is so important and the note provided them with a signal that there is Life, and more importantly Hope, beyond the walls that keep them isolated.

If you will allow, I would like to share Diella’s message with you:

I want you to know that you are not alone.  You’re in my daily thoughts and prayers,  I pray that you go safely through your day. Everyday there is a day closer to your family. Their love and prayers surround you and guide you through.

As you start your day in the morning know I have you in my thoughts. Praying that you find comfort knowing that you are not forgotten. 

Praying the Lord watches over you keeping you safe and warm.

In Jesus name I pray… ♡

Please continue to pray for the women in PFC and other prisons we visit. Also, I’d ask you say a short prayer of thanks for Diella and her courage by putting some simple thoughts into powerful words for these isolated women.  It brightened their day!

 Tiago