, 22 April, 2020 / 4:11 AM
Tall prison walls and heavy barbed wire surround the prison of Port-Bergé in the Diocese of Port-Bergé located in the North of Madagascar, where Fr. Henryk Sawarski has been providing pastoral care to hundreds of prisoners for the past five years.
Here, about 200 prisoners with varied religious affiliations are supplied with their daily necessities and equipped with life skills in preparation for their life out of prison and integration into the society.
On an ordinary day, Catholics and those who are sympathetic to Catholicism attend Mass and participate in singing and catechism at the chapel named after Saint Dismas, the good thief on the cross, who, according to Fr. Henryk, is an example of personal change and conversion.
Detailing his initial experience with prisoners in Madagascar, Fr. Sawarski, a native of Poland who has been working on the island nation located off the coast of East Africa for more than 40 years says he found inspiration to work with prisoners after Pope Francis declared the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2015, the same year that Fr. Sawarski was transferred to the diocese of Port-Bergé.
“When I drove by a prison, I saw the prison walls topped by barbed wire, or heard people talking about it,” the Polish missionary said in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) International, a global Catholic pastoral aid organization.
He added, “The Pope issued a call for corporal and spiritual acts of mercy. When I found out that the prison didn’t have any clergy, I suddenly realized that this was the place where I could best spread the mercy of God. Today I know that I myself was given this epiphany by the Merciful Jesus.”
Realizing the deplorable condition of prisoners who lacked basic needs, Fr. Sawarski first began by relieving their practical material needs without mentioning anything about spirituality until the prisoners started requesting for prayers and even Mass. He supplied the inmates with food, clothing and medicines, improved hygienic conditions and exterminated vermin.
“The inmates were astonished and asked themselves, ‘Why is this Vazaha (white man) doing this? Why is he spending so much money and devoting so much of his time to us? Is he trying to buy us so that he can convert us?’ But no, I did not say anything about prayer and religion, I remained silent and the Merciful Jesus spoke to them,” The Polish Cleric tells ACN.
He adds, “It was the most beautiful surprise I have ever had when they asked me one day, ‘Father, when are we going to pray and when are you going to celebrate Holy Mass?’”
In a country where nearly half the population subscribe to indigenous beliefs, only about a dozen of the more than 200 inmates at the prison of Port-Bergé are Catholic. Bust the whole prison population is now attending Mass that is celebrated at the prison premises on key Church functions, according to Fr. Sawarski.
“I treat all of them like my own children,” Fr. Sawarski says of the prisoners who took part in the first Christmas Mass, which, according to ACN, was celebrated by Bishop Georges Varkey who allowed confessions in the courtyard of the prison.
“When the other prisoners saw one of them kneeling there, they asked themselves, ‘What are they doing there?’ But the example they set caught on and, just imagine, even the Protestants have followed, and those who are sympathetic to Catholicism also come to ask for a blessing, Fr. Sawarski says.
He continues in reference to the prisoners who seek reconciliation with God, “They talk about their guilt, and it is overwhelming to see how God’s mercy writes straight with the crooked lines of a person’s convoluted life.”
“It is a gigantic step along the path towards inner change and conversion, but requires time and patience. It is important for the inmates to repent what they have done, desire to mend their ways and promise that they will never return to them once they leave prison,” says Fr. Sawarski.
The missionary Cleric shares the conversion of an inmate who has since been released from prison and has been giving back to those who are still held behind bars.
“Jean was in prison because he had sold the meat of stolen cattle. In prison, he yearned for his wife and his children, who were no longer able to go to school due to lack of money. I often talked with him – also about spiritual things – and he said to me, ‘Father, when I get out of here and work again, I will look for something else to do so that I will no longer sell the meat of stolen cattle; I will no longer cheat my customers by using false weights so that I will not have to return to prison. I will raise my children to be good people and I promise that I will pray fervently.’”
Fr. Sawarski continues in reference to the testimony of Jean, the prisoner, “He was a Protestant. And he said, ‘When I come to Port-Bergé, I will bring you and the inmates something.’ And that is what happened. Occasionally he would bring meat and when I asked him, ‘Jean, but this meat is not from stolen cattle, is it?’, he would answer, ‘No, no!’ Occasionally he would also bring some rice or fruit with him. Is this not a wonderful example of someone who has mended his ways and is living days of mercy?”
Fr. Sawarski believes that prison is “a special kind of hospital” where those incarcerated there are the emotionally and mentally battered, the morally broken, the intellectually uneducated, as many in the bush country were not able to attend even primary school, and the physically damaged, according to ACN.
“It is necessary to invest a great deal of time and effort in order to gather any fruit, but there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over a righteous person,” the missionary says in an interview with the aid organization.
ACN has helped set up a chapel and a small library at the prison premises that was, until Fr. Sawarski stepped in, without a chaplaincy.
“Christ himself teaches in the gospels, ‘I was in prison, and you came to visit me’ (Mt. 25:36). The veneration of Divine Mercy is a crucial and effective factor in the process of change and conversion. Our chapel serves this purpose,” Fr. Sawarski says.
He adds referencing the chapel, “It stands under the patronage of Saint Dismas, the good thief on the cross, who is an example of personal change and conversion. Nothing is ever lost – you can be saved, even at the last moment, as Christ promised to the thief from the cross. “Today you shall be with me in paradise.”
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