Taking Jesus to Prison; Finding Him There

Author Recounts Healing of Inmates and Their Victims

Rome, (Zenit.org) Antonio Gaspari | 2327 hits

Prison Fellowship International is an association present in 132 countries around the world, whose members visit prisons to promote what they call “restorative justice,” trying to alleviate the suffering of victims and recover the humanity of the guilty. 

The Italian section is called Prison Fellowship Italia Onlus, and it is directed by Marcella Clara Reni. She and Carlo Paris have written the book "Tra le Mura Dell'anima" [Between the Walls of the Soul], published by Sabbiarossa, to recount the experience of one who hoped to take Jesus to prisons and discovered that Christ was on the faces and in the sufferings of the imprisoned.

ZENIT interviewed Marcella Reni, a courageous married woman, mother of three, a notary by profession, national directress of Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Italy and president of Prison Fellowship Italia Onlus and of Victim Fellowship Italia Onlus.

ZENIT: Why did you start this work with prisoners?

Reni: It happened in a very fortuitous way. I am a notary and my father is a sergeant of the Carabinieri. As you can imagine, I have a very legalistic formation and mentality. One day a fellow countryman approached me and said: “Madame notary, my brother is a young doctor; he is in prison awaiting judgment, but he is innocent, he hasn’t done anything. You would have to go to the prison to provide your [notary services]. I went to do it with great prejudices. I thought, "They all say the same thing, all are innocent, but who knows …" I met this young man. I did the notary work in a cold and distant way. I tried to see if he understood what I was reading. When I finished reading I asked him to sign and I realized that he was as though physically and emotionally dead. I felt uncomfortable. I was already on a spiritual journey and I was moved by a young man who no longer wished to live. I looked at him in his eyes and said: “Courage, from today on I will pray for you, every day I will pray an Our Father for you.” I picked up my papers and left, and I began to pray for this man. 

I wondered “and if he really is innocent? Why so much pain?” Afterwards I was distracted by my frenetic life and I stopped praying for him. After a couple of years, a man came to my office that I didn’t recognize, and he said: “Good afternoon, notary, I’m the one from the prison. I wanted to thank you for having saved my life. In these two years I have tried to commit suicide three times. And the three times I heard a voice in my heart that said: ‘outside there is someone praying for you.’ And the three times, I stopped at the last moment.”

In fact I had forgotten to pray for him, but God never forgot him and remembered him. From this stems my interest in prisoners. After this incident, I had the possibility to meet in Italy some members of Prison Fellowship International which I didn’t know. It is an association that is present in five continents and they had come to Italy to see if they could open a Section. 

They were looking for a group of Catholics. They asked John Paul II in the Vatican, who directed them to Charismatic Renewal because “only passionate and enthusiastic people for God can carry out work of this type.” 

So, after several meetings, Prison Fellowship Italia Onlus was born and began to work in 2009.

For professional reasons, and given that I have a licentiate in law, those of CCR suggested I direct the association. I took on this project with much arrogance. I thought I’d go to prisons to take Jesus to them and yet, what touched my heart most and what converted me is that when I entered the prison I found Jesus living, who was coming to meet me. I took nothing more than my poverty. 

ZENIT: How did Prison Fellowship International come into being and in what way has the Italian Section developed?

Reni: It was born in the world because in 1976 Democratic Senator Charles Colson, Nixon’s right hand man, was accused of being a Watergate informant. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He underwent a conversion there and when he left prison he sold all he had to dedicate himself to helping detainees in the world. There are places in the world where detention is inhuman, and Colson said: “With Jesus, prison, including the worst one, becomes a more human place. Without Jesus, it’s an inhuman place.”

In this context, which is a sort of “company of friends of the detained,” intuition, which for the time being is only Italian, has taken a further step with the Sicomoro project, which is a meeting between detainees and victims. So we have also founded in Italy Victim Fellowship, because we realize that the victims suffer no less than the detainees and that they also need to be restored, and in some way we compensate for the detainees in a relation of reparation. 

Speaking with a prisoner condemned for at least 35 homicides, Mario Congiusta, whose son was killed for rejecting a petition of pizzo [tax requested by the mafia] in Calabria, said, "for you sooner or later the sentence will end. My sorrow, however, will never end.” 

Today Mario Congiusta explains that he “goes from sorrow to commitment so that it won’t happen to others, and he has found his serenity after having worked for the Sicomor project. Like him, many are the victims who find peace after working for a project of Prison Victim Fellowship. 

The first Sicomoro project came into being in the Opera prison, all with life sentences, people whose hands were soaked with blood. We asked that they entrust to us the prisoners who were better to see if it worked. However, the experts gave us the worst prisoners because they said “if it works with them it will work with all.” And it has worked!

ZENIT: But who asks you to do this?

Reni: It’s something that everyone asks us. It is a way of restoring and bringing people back to the good, so that they will realize that many of them, even the most criminal, are themselves victims in the sense that many come from desperate family situations of social and moral poverty and we have the duty to repair the damage. 

And then we witness many stories of conversion. One we met in the first Sicomoro project was a Jehovah’s Witness, born and raised in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. At the end of the project he asked to receive the Catholic sacraments. Today he is baptized and when I asked him why he made this decision, he answered: “the God they presented to me (Jehovah) always judged me. You presented a Jesus to me who forgives me, and I want this God.”

ZENIT: What can one do to support your work?

Reni: We are very poor. We have no financing or sponsor, but all our income from the book goes to the Sicomoro project. 

What would be useful is that the victims, who wish to heal the wounds caused by the harm, would contact us immediately. We have seen that the meeting between victims and detainees creates benefits for both.

We help persons by supporting them with prayer and we witness miraculous changes. In the beginning we had difficulty in having them allow us to access the prisons. Now they look for us because they have understood the power of the project. There are at least 10 prisons that have asked for our intervention.

On entering a prison we do a presentation to the detainees explaining the project. Those who decide to participate are selected. On the basis of the crime committed, we look for the victims. Those who come to the prison reproach the prisoner for his pain. This experience makes one realize and the prisoners realize that they can do nothing other than understand the suffering they have created. This pushes them to try to repair the harm. They are meeting of great emotional charge, which touches the heart also of those of us who organize the meeting. At this point a relationship begins with repentance and forgiveness. The results are incredible, with the recovery of lives stained by crime and victims freed from suffering.

[Translated by ZENIT]