Caring for prisoners in Dili

The Jesuits in Dili celebrate the Holy Eucharist at the prison in Becora, Dili on the second Sunday of every month.  Prompted by Pope Francis’ celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at a prison in Rome, Brother Noel Oliver SJ shares his impressions of the Jesuits’ prison ministry in Dili.

I can never forget my first visit to the prison in Dili on November 11 last year. I had imagined going into a place with armed guards.  I had imagined seeing the prisoners in their prison dress and standing in queues and being directed by heavily armed personnel.  On the contrary, the guards who let us in welcomed us with a smile.  We went inside and instead of multi-storey buildings with individual cells we saw open spaces and single storey blocks.  Just past these blocks was a neat chapel with benches and chairs which could accommodate more than 150 prisoners. 

The prisoners were already in the chapel when we arrived.  Four nuns were already seated inside.  One of them was seated in the front with another lady volunteer (with her guitar) and the prisoners who formed the choir. Everything was so normal and just as you would expect in any church.

There was a queue of prisoners waiting to go for confession.  Fr Quyen sat in a room hearing their confessions and he told me that there was no fear in his mind that suddenly one of the prisoners would do something violent to him.

During mass, all the readers and altar servers were prisoners, as was the conductor of the choir.  I must say that I have not heard such singing in our churches in India.They sang beautifully and with such great feeling, I could not believe that I was attending mass in a prison. 

When I visited in March, Fr Quyen and I were accompanied by four girls, all former students of Colegio de Sao Jose.  The girls sat up front with the two nuns who visit the prison regularly.  They joined the choir composed of prisoners, adding to the beauty to the singing.  We were told by the guard that the sisters come once a week to teach the prisoners some hymns.  He records this session on his mobile phone and uses that to practise the hymns with the prisoners twice during the week.

After mass, each and every prisoner went out of the chapel and shook hands with us standing there.  We were then led to a room where coffee and snacks were laid out for us, and we have this with the guards and with some of the prisoners.  There was an atmosphere of peace.

A prisoner I met in November struck me with his attitude. He had served four years of his seven-year sentence, and was just waiting to complete his sentence so that he could return to his wife and children.  He claimed that he wa s innocent but did not show any signs of bitterness or hatred at being imprisoned.  When I met him again in March, he was cheerful and told me that he may have to do only one more year of his sentence.

I have visited the prison three times now and have left it richer for the experience each time.  Things really seem to be handled in a more humane way there. 

When I shared my experience with the community, Fr Violanto told us that a number of prisoners are said to have returned home truly reformed after completing their prison term.  Had the humaneness that I had experienced there helped?

Caption for main photo: Br Tha (with specs) presenting rosaries sent by Catholics in Korea for the prisoners.  Next to him, dressed in grey, are the prison guards and next to them are two prisoners.