How visiting prisoners can change your life (and theirs)

Jail prison Credit FreeBirdPhotos Shutterstock CNA FreeBirdPhotos / Shutterstock.

Sometimes people surprise us for the better.

For Lorenzo Patelli, leader of one of the Communion and Liberation (CL) communities in Denver, and a man called "J," a former inmate who is now on parole, the surprise of friendship turned into a deep encounter with Christ through one another - all in the setting of prison ministry.

But the meeting had just happened to fall on Patelli's lap. At that time, J had been in prison for several years and requested the CL magazine, Traces, in German to learn the language, only to find that he also needed the English one to help him better translate with his German dictionary.

J contacted the Human Adventure Corporation, the legal entity the CL movement uses in the U.S. to run Traces and other various events, to ask about getting the English subscription.

"We got a phone call or an email from [a woman] saying, 'Hey, I got this request to send Traces to this prison in Colorado, I have no clue who this person or prison is, I can definitely send the magazine, but you guys want to get in contact with him?'" Patelli said.

Not long after, another member of Patelli's Denver community reached out to J by letter and said that the group wanted to visit him in prison. After a long process of applications and verification, eight from the community were added to J's list of people he was allowed to see in prison, although he couldn't see more than four at once. So they rotated.

A surprising friendship

Patelli recalled that at first, he didn't want to know J's crime, but then realized that not knowing someone's full story "is like not even knowing your name."

"We were really struck by his story and so I knew at that point, even if he had told me he killed 200 people, I would have been, not fine, but, 'Okay, this is it,'" Patelli said. "But before, I didn't want to have the opposite thing, looking at him with his crime in my mind. And a beautiful friendship started.

"I thought I was going to find someone desperate or really struggling. And I remember we met a man who was busy, certain of his faith more than me and all of us together, and it was immediately clear to all of us that we didn't go to help him, but that something was given to us," Patelli continued. "[We left] every time way more aware of the love of God for us. That God could have said, 'J I free you right now,' and he was not doing that, but yet, J was loving his life."

"Think about J" became a saying in the community to one another when they were struggling with things big and small.

"He became a presence, a something in our mind," Patelli said. "Everything took a new perspective."

For both J and Patelli, as well as the others that visited him, the friendship was a surprising encounter, Patelli said.

"We were talking about everything, he got to know us in what was going on in our lives more and more. He was telling more and more about his days," Patelli said. "You can't bring anything in [to the prison], not even your wallet. So you're naked in front of another person, who is very naked in terms of his being in prison. So it's a very interesting dynamic that makes you very true in front of what you're saying, what you want to say, what's happening in your life. It was very, very real."

Finding Christ in prison

Before meeting Patelli and the other members of the community, J had already experienced a conversion to the Catholic faith several years before.

He had previously been baptized, but when his mother left the Church while he was a kid, he did too.

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But his journey back accelerated in prison. J accepted a Bible from a chaplain and began to read it only to prove to his evangelical brother that it was "full of holes." But he found something else instead.

"I was amazed," J said. "I had no idea that there was all this history in there, and it just really spoke to me. It was clearly true. I had always believed in God and believed that Jesus was God, but I didn't know what that meant, and certainly didn't have any personal experience with Christ."

After finishing the Bible in a matter of weeks, he told his family about his experience, and his grandfather, who was a devout Catholic, sent him books so he could read more about the faith.

"I basically read my way back into the Catholic Church," J said. "It made sense to me as I read this stuff…Catholicism isn't a faith that requires you to check your brain at the door. It actually makes sense. You have to accept some premises on faith, but everything logically makes sense. You might say it's above logic, but that doesn't mean it's illogical or unreasonable, it's just more than logical and reasonable."

After getting confirmed, J became an Oblate of St. Benedict, got his master's degree in theology through the Catholic Distance University, became a leader of a non-denominational religious program, a Bible study leader, and an RCIA leader - all while in prison. He even sponsored five men in baptism and confirmation while there.

"I kind of miss it. I'm obviously happy to be out of prison, but there are days when I say, I was having a lot more impact on the world in there than I can out here, and it's been a frustration for me," J said. "I had wanted very much to get something going out here, a prison ministry that would reach into the prisons and befriend people and act as mentors. There are so many people who could use that."

"Somebody who loves me"

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During the three years that the CL community visited J, they saw the act of visiting as a charitable work, but the experience changed the way they view other people.

"When we were going down, we were reading a little booklet by Father Giussani [the founder of the CL movement] on charitable work, and he says you don't go because you can fulfill the need of the other, because who knows what that need is," Patelli said. "You go because it's part of the law of life to give yourself. And even these words, they sound cute and nice, but they were carrying a weight every time we were going down there."

They visited J about every other month until he was released on parole last October, during the Year of Mercy.

Immediately the question became, "What happens next for J?" which brought Patelli a lot of anxiety.

"So this is the situation. And then he tells me in this letter that he's going to rely on me for finding a job and getting back on track," Patelli said. "But the thing he's needed the most he's already been given, which is somebody who's out who loves me and waits for me. And that took all the anxiety and pressure off my back.

"I could have said that to myself, but it was very different to hear him say that," Patelli continued. "That exactly in these three years of visiting him, his awareness that that's what we did and that's what he needs first and foremost, is very liberating."

Now, with the gifts he's been given of conversion and a thorough education, J dreams of getting back into prison ministry to help the people he's lived so long with - especially on a relational level so they know that they, too, have "somebody who loves me."

"Of the 1,500 guys in the prison I was in, we would get about 20 guys at Mass on a regular basis," he said. "That's less than one percent. It's not that those people aren't interested in questions that life is giving them, they just don't know what the answers are. And somebody needs to engage them in a way that's compelling to them."

This article was originally published in the Denver Catholic.

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