An Ohio priest says his ministry to prisoners on death row has strengthened his conviction in the power of God’s forgiveness, even among prisoners who feel like “pariahs.”
“People preparing for death are the same whether they are in a hospice setting or a prison. They live each day, trying to find a reason for hope,” Fr. Lawrence Hummer told CNA Aug. 30.
“When they discover the power of the forgiveness of sins which comes by faith in the power of Christ to forgive, to heal, and to save, they begin to focus more on where they are going than on where they have been.”
He said he tells death row prisoners and ordinary inmates “the same thing I tell parishioners every day – God loves you and wants your repentance. When you do repent, by God’s own grace, the slate is wiped clean and you are headed for glory.”
Fr. Hummer, 66, is pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in the southern Ohio city of Chillicothe. Since 2009 he has ministered to Catholic inmates at Chillicothe Correctional Institution, whither death row inmates were moved in January, 2012.
One inmate to whom he ministered, Mark Wiles, was executed in that April at the age of 49. The former farmhand fatally stabbed teenager Mark Klima during a 1985 farmhouse burglary, the Columbus Dispatch reports.
“Mark was 20 years old and a drug addict when he killed the 15-year-old son of a man he had worked for,” Fr. Hummer said. “Mark was looking to rob the man when he violently murdered the boy.”
While in prison, Wiles was baptized as a Catholic.
“He was a private man, though he was well-liked by his fellow Catholic inmates,” the priest said.
Fr. Hummer ministered to Wiles during his last hours. Wiles prayed the rosary and went to confession, was anointed, and received Communion before being executed.
“I really didn’t do much other than be with him and share the sacraments of the Church.”
“I had anointed people many times at or near death over the years but somehow the experience with Mark was different,” Fr. Hummer said. “It really was an intense experience of grace in the conviction that God really does forgive us sinners and our sins as we proclaim our faith and ask forgiveness.”
Fr. Hummer’s ministry deeply affected Wiles.
“He wrote a letter to his best friend, another man on death row, on the night before he died. In the letter he said he was convinced that God had sent ‘that priest’ to him at that time. He expressed to his friend his gratitude to God that it had happened, and I suppose one has to say his faith had grown from the experience, as had mine.”
The priest said that most death row prisoners are from “pretty rough backgrounds,” such as broken homes.
“Most have been in prison for many, many years and most have lost whatever mean streak led them to do evil in their past. They are human beings who did some very bad things, but like all human beings, (they) were and remain ‘created in the image and likeness of God.’ People demonize them for what they did, but forget how often Jesus not only forgave sinners, but told us to do the same.”
Fr. Hummer said that all prisoners have “the same kinds of problems anybody who lives in a community has,” though they also face special difficulties.
“They are separated from their loved ones … they feel like pariahs, cut off from society as they are.”
Fr. Hummer emphasized that the prisoners endure “the same kinds of agony” as anyone else.
“They are, in a word human. Nothing more, nothing less.”