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Jesuit sees the power of faith in a Dili prison

Expecting nothing but misery, Brother Oliver witnesses the transforming power of compassion

Brother Tha, left, helps distribute rosaries sent from Korea to prisoners Brother Tha, left, helps distribute rosaries sent from Korea to prisoners
  • Br Noel Oliver SJ, Dili, for Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference
  • Timor Leste
  • April 29, 2013
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I can never forget my first visit to the prison in Dili on November 11 last year. I had imagined going into a place with armed guards. I had imagined seeing the prisoners in their prison dress and standing in queues and being directed by heavily armed personnel. 

On the contrary, the guards who let us in welcomed us with a smile. We went inside and instead of multi-storey buildings with individual cells we saw open spaces and single-storey blocks. Just past these blocks was a neat chapel with benches and chairs which could accommodate more than 150 prisoners. 

The prisoners were already in the chapel when we arrived. Four nuns were seated inside. One of them was seated in the front with another lady volunteer (with her guitar) and the prisoners who formed the choir. Everything was so normal; just as you would expect in any church.

There was a queue of prisoners waiting to go for confession. Fr Quyen sat in a room hearing their confessions and he told me that there was no fear in his mind that suddenly one of the prisoners would do something violent to him.

During Mass, all the readers and altar servers were prisoners, as was the conductor of the choir. I must say that I have not heard such singing in our churches in India. They sang beautifully and with such great feeling, I could not believe that I was attending mass in a prison. 

When I visited in March, Fr Quyen and Iwere accompanied by four girls, all former students of Colegio de Sao Jose. The girls sat up front with the two nuns who visit the prison regularly. They joined the choir composed of prisoners, adding to the beauty of the singing. We were told by the guard that the sisters come once a week to teach the prisoners hymns. He records the session on his mobile phone and uses that to practice the hymns with the prisoners twice during the week.

After Mass, each and every prisoner went out of the chapel and shook hands with us standing there. We were then led to a room where coffee and snacks were laid out for us, and we had this with the guards and with some of the prisoners. There was an atmosphere of peace.

A prisoner I met in November struck me with his attitude. He had served four years of his seven-year sentence, and was just waiting to complete it so he could return to his wife and children. He claimed that he was innocent but did not show any signs of bitterness or hatred at being imprisoned. When I met him again in March, he was cheerful and told me that he may have to do only one more year of his sentence.

I have visited the prison three times now and have left it richer for the experience each time. Things really seem to be handled in a more humane way there. 

When I shared my experience with the community, Fr Violanto told us that a number of prisoners are said to have returned home truly reformed after completing their prison term. Had the humaneness that I experienced there helped?

Full story: Caring for prisoners in Dili

Source: Jesuit Asia Pacific Conference

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