I was at mass in Maynooth with the Irish Catholic bishops and the gospel reading for the first Monday in Lent was especially apt:
“I was hungry and you gave me food
I was thirsty and you gave me drink
I was a stranger and you made me welcome
Naked, and you clothed me
Sick, and you visited me
In prison and you came to see me” (Matthew 25)
In my student days there were many long, and sometimes heated, discussions between members of the Catholic Society (of which I was President for a year) and the Christian Union about who could be ‘saved’. Was faith alone sufficient or were ‘good works’ also necessary? The bishop who gave the sermon at the mass was in no doubt that service to neighbour is central, in particular the neighbour who is most in need. And just like the people in that gospel passage that Jesus told the story to, we may never know when we have helped (or harmed!) another person with our words or our deeds.
By a happy coincidence, while I was in Maynooth enjoying again the warm hospitality of the bishops (welcomed, watered and fed), Breda, Ellena and Liz from the Irish Chaplaincy were at Parliament to receive the Gerry Ryan Community Award from the Labour Party Irish Society in recognition of the great work of ICPO, the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas. In a typical year, members of our London team visit about 800 Irish prisoners across England and Wales, as well as roughly 400 Travellers in the criminal justice system (whilst ICPO Maynooth helps Irish people in prison elsewhere in the world). In addition, there is a wide range of office-based support including letter writing and some financial assistance for phone credit (essential when the family is back in Ireland) and basic necessities like toiletries. We hear time and again from prisoners and others how vital, and at times literally life-saving, this support is, and here is a small selection of quotes from the many letters of thanks received:
“Thank you for all your help and understanding over the years I have contacted you for advice” (HMP Garth, Christmas 2018)
“God bless you and Thank you for everything you have done for me- keeping me sane” (HMP Wymott)
“I want to thank you and the Irish Chaplaincy for being there for me all these years. Just to have a friendly someone to talk to makes all the difference”. (HMP Hull)
“If it wasn’t for the work you do, us Irish would be lost. Anyhow I’m actually doing great for myself, I’m clean and sober for the first time in over 20 years”. (HMP Littlehey)
“Thank you all for your care and kindness to me” (ex-prisoner)
During my meeting at Maynooth with the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants I reported that our Fr Gerry would himself have been with the others at Parliament but he was visiting prisons in the North of England, together with Ian Hanna from ICPO Maynooth.
“I was in prison and you came to see me”.
When going off to University as an 18 year old I’d wanted to both deepen my faith (getting involved with the Catholic Society, who had great parties as well as great masses!), and find some kind of practical expression of this. I initially joined Student Community Action but my first couple of visits with them didn’t seem to go too well and I didn’t go again. Then a man from Belfast called Adrian arrived at the Catholic Chaplaincy. He was doing post-graduate studies in Japanese of all things, and he promptly started a student SVP (St Vincent de Paul) group which organised various weekly visiting: to a cancer hospital and a geriatric hospital near the campus; besides running parties for the children of Travellers (now they were lively affairs!). I eventually got involved but my first SVP visit didn’t go very well either, and I was worried I wasn’t really cut out for ‘that kind of thing’. One of my friends encouraged me to persevere, which I did, and I came to particularly enjoy my time with the people in the geriatric hospital, and I always seemed to come away feeling that I’d surely received far more than I could have given.
Following my time at Maynooth I drove to Prosperous, also in Co. Kildare, to stay with the above-mentioned Adrian and his lovely three daughters. And I was on the receiving end of further warm hospitality, made particularly so by a roaring peat fire and (even if it was Lent and I was trying to stay off alcohol) a very drinkable bottle of Australian red!
At times, the identity of the person in need is clear; at other times it may not be so, and I’ve always been struck by the command given in the book of Hebrews Chapter 13 (with reference to a story in Genesis (C. 18) where Abraham and Sarah give food to three unexpected visitors): ” Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”. Interestingly this is followed by the line:
“Keep in mind those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; and those who are being badly treated, since you too are in the one body”.
I do believe that we are all part of one body, and that those parts that may be considered of less worth are perhaps in need of the greatest care.