Who would you expect to be more open to conversion, prison inmates, or students at a Catholic college? A few years back my sons used to attend a Catholic boys group that included sports, games, scripture reading, and catechesis, along with the occasional guest speaker. One such speaker was a young priest we knew who came to talk about his work as a chaplain. As it happened, he had been assigned to two different chaplaincies shortly after his ordination, one at the local (more or less) Catholic college, the other at a nearby prison. One of the boys asked him who was harder to work with, the cons or the coeds?
“It’s not even close,” was the priest’s reply, “the students are much harder to work with.”
We might expect it to be the other way around; the young priest certainly thought so before he started working in the two different institutions. And yet it really shouldn’t surprise us. If you’re in prison, it’s hard to ignore the consequences of your actions. It’s true that many criminals can still convince themselves that it’s all somebody else’s fault, even after they’ve been convicted and locked up. But the prisoners who are still in denial, generally speaking, aren’t the ones seeking out the chaplain.
Students at a Catholic college, on the other hand, tend to be doing fairly well. Again, there are exceptions: all have experienced some difficulties in life, and some, of course, will have experienced serious suffering. For the most part, however, if you’re a student in good standing at a private college, you have reason to consider yourself fairly successful. The more successful we are, the more in control we feel . . . and the less need we feel for God.
I remember grappling with this problem thirty years ago, when I returned to the Church after my years of exile among the secularists. It was exciting to understand the stories and lessons in the Bible with fresh eyes: I found myself understanding even long-familiar passages in a totally new way. One thing that perplexed me at first, however, was the behavior of the Hebrews in the Books of Kings and Chronicles, who were constantly chasing after other gods and “doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” They knew who God was, didn’t they? They had all the evidence they needed in the history of their people, and yet they kept rejecting God for . . . other things.
I soon came to understand that the Hebrews, as fallen human beings, were simply doing what fallen human beings do. I came to see it in my own life: I was brought back to the Faith by a profound experience of Jesus Christ. I knew firsthand that God was real. And yet, time and again, I found myself straying, drawn by the allure of . . . other things.
That’s why Jesus gave his Apostles the power to forgive sins (see Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, and John 20:23). We are all in continual need of repentance and forgiveness, both individually and collectively. The problem is, we don’t always know it. Like the ancient Hebrews before the Baylonian exile, we forget about God whenever things seem to be going well. We feel like we’re in control, and think we can do whatever we want. It often takes a setback to remind us that we’re really not in control at all. Sometimes it takes a severe setback. For the Hebrews of the First Millennium BC, it took eighty years of enslavement in a foreign land to put them straight.
Unfortunately, there is often a price to pay, and the stronger the reminder, the greater the price. The Hebrew tribes of Judah and Benjamin, who occupied the Kingdom of Judah and were carried into exile by the Babylonians, later returned to their land with their faith purified and strengthened by the harsh lessons of exile. The ten tribes of the Kingdom of Israel, however, who had been conquered over a century earlier by the Assyrians, were scattered and disappeared from history. Likewise, an alcoholic who at long last hits rock bottom and turns to God as his Higher Power will often, nonetheless, still suffer permanent physical, mental, and neurological damage. We risk paying a high price for our failings. It’s better to respond to gentler reminders before we hit rock bottom.
And reminders there will be. The inspired author of the letter to the Hebrews writes:
“For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? . . . he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (Hebrews 12:6-7; 10)
Note the positive incentive: “that we may share his holiness.” The potential reward is great beyond our imagination; the price of failure, however, is something we don’t want to imagine. The stakes are high.
The convicts in the state penitentiary know from hard experience that the stakes are high. One of the most well known of these is Chuck Colson. Colson was deeply involved in the illegal Watergate activities of President Richard Nixon’s administration. As his arrest seemed imminent in the spring of 1973, a friend gave him a copy of of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. That was just the spark he needed to bring him back to Christ: instead of cursing his bad fortune, he saw his imminent incarceration as a deserved chastisement for his wrongdoing. He became a committed Evangelical Christian, and accepted responsibility for his criminal behavior, pleading guilty to obstruction of justice charges.
The Book of Proverbs assures us that “Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray.” (Proverbs 10:17) Colson discovered the truth of those words in prison, saying afterwards: “I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea that God had put me in prison for a purpose and that I should do something for those I had left behind.” After his release Colson founded an organization called Prison Fellowship, dedicated to helping the broken people in our correctional institutions find spiritual healing, and more. As the Prison Fellowship website puts it:
Through an amazing awakening to new hope and life purpose, those who once broke the law are transformed and mobilized to serve their neighbors, replacing the cycle of crime with a cycle of renewal.
That message is for all of us, not just convicted criminals. We’re all called to replace the cycle of sin in our lives with a cycle of renewal.
The bad news is that, however in control we feel, failure and suffering, of some sort, will come into our life. The good news is that those apparent misfortunes are what will turn us away from ourselves and toward God. That’s the Mystery of the Cross. St. Paul says, “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14) The Good News, in other words, is that Christ is calling all of us to share in his glory, whether we’re cons, or coeds.