God does not make any difference. (Dominicans in Prison – the Lay community of “Our Lady of Mercy”, Norfolk, Massachusetts, USA.)
Today, October 24th
, it is a feast day for the Lay Dominicans in the Netherlands: one member does her final profession, and another his first. All over the world, Lay Dominicans share in the mission of the Order, preach the Gospel and give a testimony of Gods abundant mercy and love. Some weeks ago, I had the great joy to be witness of another Profession feast of Lay Dominicans. Together with Sr. Pia Elisabeth, prioress of the Dominican sisters of Bethany/Mont, we were invited to visit a very special branch at the tree of Bethany: a Dominican Lay chapter, whose members consist mostly of imprisoned men.
How is this possible?
A view back into history.
September 1864 – the French Dominican Jean Joseph Lataste is sent to preach a retreat in the women’s prison of Cadillac, near to Bordeaux (France). There he will meet 400 women, sentenced to long punishments, often because of having killed their child, fruit of abuse and violence. He is overwhelmed by the experience to meet not only prisoners, but sisters: women who have the same right to stay a whole night in front of the Holy Sacrament as those who guard them, or as those who dedicated their lives completely to God, such as he had done by himself. God finds himself not too great to stay all night with those who had learnt that they are just rubbish – the rubbish of a society with a double moral. Father Lataste finds himself deeply converted by this experience: if God forgives these women, if He offers them new life and new opportunities in Him, we, people of God, are not allowed to refuse those who have chosen wrong ways, even the way of severe crimes. The converter got converted.
He felt called to found a congregation where women independent of their past could enter to live a religious life. The seed was planted.
September 2010 – in the chapel of Norfolk prison (Massachusetts/USA), it is a great feast day: Tom and Linton do final profession, and Michael and Dennis begin their noviciate as Lay Dominicans. Timothy, who should have done his first profession, unfortunately is ill this day, and three men start their postulancy. Let them tell their own story themselves to you :
“Over twenty years ago, a former Dominican Sister of Bethany, formed in the charism of Père Lataste, and a Franciscan sister, blessed with the same vision, became chaplains in our prison. Together they planted a seed, founding the Bethany Community from which has been born a Chapter of Lay Dominicans (made up OP prisoners and outsiders), living lives of holiness, being preachers of grace, hope and light, in an environment that breeds darkness and despair. We consider it to be a miracle that we are blessed to be walking this path. All this has come about through the intercession of Père Lataste, beginning with the retreat he preached for women prisoners in Cadillac, France (1864), founding the Dominican sisters of Bethany, to the establishment of our Bethany Community, and Our Lady of Mercy Chapter in the Lay Fraternity of St. Dominic”.
More than 35 prisoners and a couple of men and women from outside belong to the chapter of Our Lady of Mercy. Some of the members have a lifelong sentence and will never be free. But they found a meaning in their lives, because they know, that God found them. They met the God of Love and Mercy and let Him enter into their lives. This does not improve the social state in the prison environment; often it means even the opposite. But nevertheless, the members of the community are missionaries themselves. They tell others in prison about their experiences bring them to the group and help them to find their way. A large group of volunteers supports them: people from Boston University, engaged catholic lay persons, sisters from different congregations. The volunteers organize cursillos, formation, talking groups. A very special group of livelong sentenced men meets regularly together with two volunteers to talk about their view on life and death. They know that they will die in prison and be buried in the prison cemetery.
Some of the men will become free one day. The Bethany community takes care, if they want: there is a house where three former prisoners can stay for a while, a shop where two ex-inmates work and where others can help, and there is a “normal” chapter of Lay Dominicans which is open to give a warm welcome to their brothers who come from prison, so that they can go on their way as Lay Dominicans.
Being with these men, being with the founders Ruth and Kathleen, deeply touched us. We experienced that it is really true what theoretically all of us know: God does not make any difference. The meal with the sinners is a reality: together we celebrated Eucharist, the murderer and the nun, the priest and the thief, all of us sinners. All of us are welcome on the table of the Lord who came to bring forgiveness and love to everyone.
A testimony that can change hearts of men and convert those who came to preach conversion. Thank you, dear friends in Norfolk, that you allowed us to share this experience with you!
Sr. Sara Böhmer OP
General Prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Bethany, Venlo