A few years ago I was sent to work as a chaplain intern at a women’s prison in New England. It was with nerves on edge and jugular vein jumping in my throat that I arrived at the prison gates. It was right there that I met Sister Maureen, a short nun, full of fire and spirit who also happened to be the full time Catholic Chaplain at the prison. She had been involved in the criminal justice system for years, and was used to nervous young Jesuits floating in and out of the prison for brief stints.
From week to week my ministry there ranged from the special (like giving an afternoon retreat for some women about to be released from prison) to the humdrum (like handing out songbooks before the weekly Sunday Mass). As is its tendency, time lessened my nerves. But before that happened, early in my time there, Maureen said something to me that I have yet to forget.
It was a Sunday, and the priest who was to say mass didn’t show. Sister Maureen, who had left me in her office as she went to the security cage to check him in, suddenly reappeared, a religious woman on a mission.
“Preside or preach?” she asked quickly.
“What?” I stammered, as I watched her rifle through her desk and pull out a small silver container filled with the Blessed Sacrament.
“No priest. Communion service,” she muttered. At this point it seemed she was speaking only in monosyllabic grunts. “Preside or preach?” she asked again. And stared at me.
“I don’t even know what the readings for Mass are,” I answered sheepishly. In response she thrust a box of supplies into my arms and took off down the corridor.
I watched her for a moment as she thumped down the hall, Holy Communion in hand, and then she looked back over her shoulder and said again: “Preside or preach? We’re starting in five minutes.”
Given that my old friend time had not yet worked his magic on my nerves, my thought process was simple: be in front of the women for as little time as possible. “Preach!” I yelled after her.
Stopping short, Maureen walked back to me and pointed a tiny finger up towards my frozen face. “O.K.” she said, “just invite them to God’s love.”
She said the words quietly, leaning in, and her short frame seemed suddenly taller. And with that she turned on her heels and started again down the hallway for the prison chapel, leaving me with my box of mass supplies and a spinning head.
I don’t remember what I preached about that Sunday, but I remember what Sister Maureen said to me: invite them to God’s love. In the last few years I’ve come to see this as perhaps the single most important thing I can share with others. The invitation to the love of God is a foreign experience to so many people, people who – almost daily – seem to ask, “How could God love me for me?”
Today marks my first post as a blogger for The Jesuit Post. I’m happy to join the ranks. My goal? A continuation of Sister Maureen’s plea and directive: invite people to God’s love.
Postscript: Just a few ago I was back in New England, and so I wrote to Sister Maureen, hoping to visit the prison again. It had been four years since I’d last been behind bars, but I recognized several faces almost immediately. After mass, and without any real warning (some things never change), Maureen asked me to say a few words about what I had been up to. So I told them the story I just told you, I told them the lesson their Catholic chaplain had taught me years before.
“I’ve been trying to invite people to God’s love ever since I left you,” I told them. The women cheered loudly, warmly welcoming their old friend – one bearing their chaplain’s message – back into their midst.