Memories Of My Ministries

Memories Of My Ministries

Visits that Touched and Changed Me


Jesus said that He came, not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mt. 9:13). Strange as it may sound, he had a soft corner, not for the “good ones,” but for the messed up characters. He challenged the self-righteous crowd who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn.8:7). Those in jail are not the only ones who commit a crime.

Pope Francis started his talk in a prison in Central America with these touching words, “Standing before you is a man who has experienced much forgiveness.”

In my experience, God walks with us very powerfully when we are engaged in prison ministry. I got into this ministry very reluctantly. I did not know anything about it. I went because I was asked to. To get some basic idea, I went for prison-ministry training. It proved to be very useful. But what would change me profoundly was not some nice theory, but the touching human stories I witnessed in our prisons.

A different world

In ancient times a prison was considered a house of captives and a place of punishment. Today it is viewed as a correctional home or institution for rehabilitation. People in prison are human beings who are need our love, compassion and understanding. Unfortunately, Indian prisons are not what they should be. Most are over-crowded. They have minimum facilities, so much so, in one prison they have a shift system for sleep, due to lack of space. They do not have sufficient staff to take care of them. The prisoners are underfed.  Medical facilities are also given negligently. There are malpractices, such as the visitors to the prisons being asked to pay fees. Not all the things visitors bring for the prisoners reach them. Undue punishment is inflicted on them from time to time, and human dignity is being denied. For example, they have to sleep on the floor. They are not allowed to sit on a chair.

Prison ministry is not an option; it is an obligation. Every human being is a precious child of God. How come some of them become criminals? How do we help them change their life and be integrated into their families and into society again? In each of them, we meet Christ.

Some prisoners have no one to visit them or care for them. There is a great need to release them from loneliness, guilt, shame, fear, frustration, unforgiveness, hatred and revenge. We often forget that the prisoner was a brother or sister, father/mother, or a friend to someone, till he or she reached the prison. Once they are in the prison, they are often seen and treated as nobodies—isolated, hated, rejected, ignored and written off.

On one occasion I happened to talk to a convict who was very respectful and cordial. I used to meet him often. One day I asked him whether he had any good news of his release. “I will be bailed out within a year or two,” he replied. “But I have spent the best years of my life locked up here.”

He must have been in his fifties then. “I have no wish to go back home. Both my parents are dead;  my wife got married to someone else; my children are settled. Where can I go? This jail may well be my home now, for the rest of my life!”

Another time, a police superintendent told us that, in some cases, the relatives do not even come to claim the body when an inmate dies in the prison. The prison authorities have to see to the burial or cremation at the expense of the prison.

When will I go home?

One day, after my regular visit to the prisoners in a central jail where there are some 2300 men, I was at the last door—a low door, half open—that led out of the prison. One has to bend low to pass through it. A prisoner was waiting in line to receive the things his relatives had brought for him. “Sister, are you going back home?” he asked me. I nodded my head. “When will I get a chance to go home too?”  “How long have you been in jail?” “Seven years.” We could not carry on talking, since the security guard approached me and requested me to leave. I never saw that prisoner again, though I looked for him every time I went there. I will never forget the sad look on his face.

A thirty-one-year old convict, a computer engineer, was sharing his agony with us. He had a young wife aged twenty-seven and two children at home. Waiting and waiting for her husband’s return, she became mentally ill. We got his home address and went to visit his family. The young woman blurted out: “When will my husband come home for good?” To pacify her, we said that he would to coming back soon. We framed a letter to the I.G., pleading with him to allow the prisoner to return to his family for a few months, to give his wife some temporary relief. Unfortunately, the reply of the I.G. was that there was no provision for this in the case of convicts.

On Raksha Bandan Day—an Indian feast on which women tie a special thread called “Rakhi” on the wrist of their brothers or of some other man whom they see as their brotherwe usually tie rakhis on the wrists of hundreds of prisoners and become a sister for them. Since their own sisters are unable to visit them, this gesture means much to the men. Many prisoners break down and cry bitterly, thinking of their family members. All of them, however poor, give us at least ten rupees from the little money they have. After all, on this day, the brother is supposed to give a gift to his sister! One of the prisoners once gave us a 500 Rupee note. An old man cried because he did not have even ten Rupees to give us. We usually have a bhajan service with them, on the sacredness of the brother-sister relationship.

Children in jail?

There are also little children in our jails. They were either born in the jail or, being small, need to be with their mothers. Some have never seen their father. The prisoners become their relatives and siblings. What an environment to grow in! We wondered whether the authorities could make some arrangement for pregnant women so that they may get better care and have a healthier and more normal environment for their children.

Whenever I needed money to help prisoners, God-sent angels were there for me. Poor prisoners would ask me for warm shawls during winter. Friends would give me money for getting such things. At times, without my asking, good people would give me money for the prisoners. I felt the hand of God reaching out to me through them.

“When I was in prison, you visited me. What you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to Me.” Prisoners certainly belong to the least and the most forgotten. May we see the face of Christ in them, visit them, and do what we can to help them. More people are aware of the plight of prisoners today. Much more can be done, if more of us opened our eyes and hearts to the needs, pains and dreams of our brothers and sisters who languish in prison, largely forgotten.

We also need to keep in mind this tragic reality:  a large number of persons in Indian jails are undertrials—men and women whose cases have not been tried!

Sr Mary Chacko FDCC – Sr. Maria Chacko, a Canossian Sister, has been a full-time volunteer in the Central Jail at Motihari, Bihar.

To subscribe to the magazine     Contact Us

read more
Memories Of My Ministries

The Poor Boy Who Inspires Me

March 02

Rakesh (name changed) phoned me the other day. We have not met in years, but I remember him clearly. His idealism inspires me.

I first met him in a little village in Jharkhand where I had the joy and privilege of working among the poor. He was twelve when we first met. He worked at a construction site. He carried bricks on his head. I asked him one day, “Would you like to study?” “Yes, Sister, but we are poor. I cannot afford to go to school.”

His mother was no more. His father could not think of children’s education. Feeding them was his daily struggle.

Some good people helped me to help him. With their contributions, we were able to pay his fees and meet his other expenses as a student.

He joined school. He studied well.

All that happened over six years ago. He phoned to thank me for what I had done for him. He wants me to go back to his village. I would love to, and do what I can for the poor. Right now, I am mostly tied up with office work.

I asked him what his plans are. He wants to go to college.

“What are you planning to study?”


“Philosophy? Why?”

“I want to enter public service. I have seen how you (Sisters) work for the people. You all do so much good. I want to do the same.”

I have received much love from the poor people among whom I worked. Their material poverty has not made them humanly or spiritually poor. There is so much goodness in so many of them. I have seen it first hand.

Here are four lessons I have learnt from working among the poor.

One: I have been happiest when I worked among the poor. Experience has shown me that happiness does not come from a comfortable life, or holding so-called “important” posts. I would love to go back to that poor village any day.

Two: We have much to learn from the poor. They are not simply recipients of our charity. They show a rich humanity which can make us better people. They are illiterate or deprived of many things, not because they are lazy or stupid, but because they did not get the opportunities that we have received. How well a number of poor children do when they get access to education! How generously they share the little they have! How courageously they put up with hardships day in and day out!

Three: The poor—as Rakesh shows me—are capable of idealism and a life of service, just like us, religious and priests. They are not simply looking for a better life for themselves. They are not looking for just material handouts, but for inspiring example and our loving presence.

Four: People can make out whether we love them or not. All human beings long for love and are capable of loving. As Mother Teresa often said, the greatest hunger is not for food, but for love. When we live among the poor as loving sisters and brothers, we not only respect and dignify the poor. They show us much love. Isn’t that a richer “reward” than material gifts or big posts?

I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to live and work among the poor. I am grateful to my materially poor sisters and brothers from whom I have learnt much. They do not have the opportunities, nor the human and spiritual helps we receive in abundance—education, hours of daily prayer, retreats, years of formation, medical treatment, financial security, … And yet, a number of them show a level of goodness, love and thoughtfulness which we, the so-called “chosen ones” would do well to imitate.

Thank you, God, for the goodness the poor have shown me.

Sr XYZ (name withheld on request)

To subscribe to the magazine     Contact Us

read more
Memories Of My Ministries

A Knock on The Door Late in The Night


There was a knock on my office door.

It was night. I was parish priest of the Annai Velanganni Shrine in Besant Nagar, Chennai, a popular Marian shrine where devotees of all faiths come to pray.

I had already closed the church and the shrine building.

I opened the door.

A group of men stood in front of me—not Catholics, apparently. Well-educated and refined persons, from the way they spoke.

“Father, sorry to disturb you at this late hour. Could you please open the Mother Mary Chapel? We want to pray to Mother Mary.”

When people use the term, “Mother Mary,” rather than Our Lady, it usually means they are not Catholics.

“Of course,” I told them. “No problem at all. Come.”

I got the keys and went with them, and opened the shrine.

They entered, behaved very devoutly, prayed for some time, thanked me, and left.

I did not think about this afterwards.

A week later, the postman brought us a cheque for Rs 100,000. We had never received such a big offering. Who was sending this donation? And why?

With the cheque was a letter.

They came from the men who had come to pray on the night I mentioned. They were directors of a large and very well-known corporate group, whose name I am not mentioning here, since they may not want it.

“Our company was going through a severe crisis,” the letter said. “As you know, we are Hindus. Some of our Hindu friends told us: Go to the Besant Nagar Church and pray to Mother Mary. Your problem will be solved. That is why we came.

“After praying to Mother Mary, we left. That very night, our problem was solved. Please accept this donation in thanksgiving.”

Weeks later, another cheque for the same amount came from the same people.

They became our friends.

They have supported some of the churches.

If you visit their institutions, you will find a statue of Our Lady of Velanganni in one of the floors.

I have been deeply edified by Marian devotion of people of other faiths. Several of them have come to our church to give witness to the wonder Our Lady has done in answer to their prayers. Here is just one instance.

It happened in Velanganni church, Nagapattinam.

An officer in the Chennai corporation had a child affected by polio who could not walk. The parents went on a pilgrimage to Velanganni, taking the little child with them. On reaching the shrine, they placed the child at the entrance to the church, on the floor. The wife waited near the child.

The distraught father walked to the statue of Our Lady and prayed. He wept. After five minutes, he looked back. He could hardly believe his eyes! Here was his little child, a polio patient, walking normally towards him.

He now likes to give witness to this grace. He and his wife have also done voluntary service for pilgrims in the Holy Land.


Editor’s note:

In a paper presented at a Mariological conference in Rome, the well-known Indian theologian, Fr. Dominic Veliath SDB, pointed out this difference between Europe and India. In Europe, devotion to Mary was a point of division—between Catholics and Protestants. In India, devotion to Mary is a point of unity. People of all faiths come to pray in Marian Shrines. They come mostly to pray for health. Sick people, and relatives of sick people, flock to Marian Shrines. They really see Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as their own Mother, and pray with deep devotion. Many of us have seen the fervour with which these devotees of all faiths pray in such shrines.

– Fr Lawrence Raj, Archdiocese of Madras-Mylapore

To subscribe to the magazine     Contact Us

read more
Memories Of My Ministries

A Home Visit And A Confession


After 24 Surgeries, Cancer

Eleanor, our office assistant, told me, “Father, a friend of mine is very sick. She cannot come to church. Can you come with me to visit her?”

“Yes, of course.”

Eleanor and I drive to the flat where Jean, her friend lived. On the way, Eleanor tells me more about Jean’s condition.

Jean was, if I remember right, in her fifties. A number of health problems meant years of treatment, including twenty-four surgeries! And now, after all these treatments, she was suffering from lung cancer.

We know at Jean’s door. A pleasant middle-aged woman of average height opens the door for us. She and Eleanor hug.

We sit and we talk. What a conversation it turned out to be.

“When some people are diagnosed with cancer, they say, ‘Why me?’ That’s the right question. Why not me? I am not better than others. There is no reason why I should not get cancer.”

We talk of other happenings in Jean’s life.

“This year has been hard, since my brother died. He was my only living relative. So, that’s been tough. But, I have no doubt about God’s love for me.”

Apart from her sense of God, Jean had kept her sense of humour as well.

Eleanor pointed out Jean’s oxygen machine. At times, her breathing became laborious, she had to be given oxygen.

So, too, she carried a whistle around her neck. Why?

“In case her speech fails, and she needs to call for help urgently,” Eleanor explains to me.

“See,” Jean butts in, “Eleanor is jealous of all the nice gadgets I have.”

Jean died a few months later.

My visit to her was a grace for me. She taught me by her serene confidence, deep conviction of God’s love and lack of complaints. And she managed to remain graceful—and humorous.

The people we minister to certainly teach us more than we teach them. They are often our best teachers.

What a great teacher Jean was!

A Teenager’s Confession

This happened at a parish retreat. Participants: Mostly young people, and few grown-ups. One of the men in the group said, “I came because my kids told me it would be nice for me to attend.”

My retreat talks always include one on confession. Why go to confession? What difference does it make? Can’t I ask pardon directly from God? Such questions are normal and sensible, and need to be addressed. I find that, once their doubts are cleared, and they see what a lovely gift we have in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so many young people come for confession that it is hard to find enough time. So, too, given the choice between kneeling hidden behind a screen, or sitting in front of the priest, most prefer to be seen, and have a heart-to-heart chat. They take their time. Some weep. The celebration of the Sacrament becomes meaningful and even deeply moving.

I cannot, of course, share, even without their names, what any of them told me in confession. Nor do I remember it. But the conclusion of one teenager’s confession remains vivid in my memory. She and I walked around the green campus, as we talked. At the end, I asked her, “What would be a meaningful ‘penance’ for you? What would help you to celebrate God’s forgiving love?” Her very meaningful answer: “Father, God has blessed me with wonderful parents. My mother in particular has been such a gift. But, in the last two years, I have really been a pain in the neck for them. What’s more, I have never shown my mother any appreciation. So, what I am going to do is this: I will  write a letter to my Mom and tell her how much I appreciate her and what she has done for me, ask pardon for the pain I caused her, and promise to be different.”

“That would be a wonderful penance,” I told her. “Very meaningful and sincere. Yes, do it, and offer it as your penance.”

(We invite priests, religious and lay ministers to send us inspiring memories from their ministry. Please e-mail to:

To subscribe to the magazine     Contact Us

read more