Chapter 25 of Saint Matthew lists the works of mercy that Jesus asks everyone who would follow him to perform and, the last of them is this: “because I was imprisoned, and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:36) The reality is, when one feels called to do something for one’s neighbor, generally, the first thing one thinks of is feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or caring for the sick. Almost no one is attracted to visiting the incarcerated, perhaps out of fear or because of the idea that if these people are there, it is because they deserve it.
For the past seven years, I have been visiting various women prisons in Mexico with a team of brave and generous women to bring the inmates the experience of the Emmaus Catholic retreat. After these encounters, we are all left with the feeling of having learned a great lesson in life and the feeling of having received more than we have given.
One of the first things these encounters taught us is to not take for granted all that we have and to value and give thanks for everything, since in some of the prisons they do not even have drinking water, decent food or a bed to sleep in. A second thing we have learned, is that the women who are imprisoned are people like us. Unfortunately, many of these women have been conditioned by a childhood without love or resources and they carry deep wounds of abandonment. They have made a mistake, which the vast majority regret, especially after experiencing with us the Emmaus retreat, where the mercy and grace of God can almost be touched. The third thing learned is that sadly, the justice system in our Latin American countries is deplorable, with many innocent people imprisoned, with trials that last for years, and corrupt lawyers, who seek only to extract money from the inmates’ families.
By sharing those three days of the retreat with these women, one can feel their sadness, abandonment, loneliness, and hopelessness. They have a great need to be heard and treated with dignity. Every little detail has great value for them. Giving them a simple hug sometimes changes their lives. That is why I invite anyone who reads this blog to consider doing something for the prisoners. Freedom is one of the great attributes that God has given to human beings. It is something inherent in all of us, and, therefore, living without it is one of the greatest misfortunes. If you feel the call to visit those incarcerated, you must go with an open and humble heart, without judging or feeling as if you are better than they, but rather convinced that anyone could be there one day, if it were not for the grace of God.
Mother María Elena Martínez is a nun, born in Mexico City, where she still resides today. She has had a consecrated life for more than 30 years. She is currently a member of a community called María Madre del Amor which is dedicated to evangelization through Emmaus retreats in parishes and prisons and Sicar retreats for young people.