‘I tell prisoners: God loves you’

Agnieszka Dziarmaga

Born in Sicily, Sr. Nazarena Scopelliti left for Kielce and immediately after her arrival she began going to the House of Detention in Piaski. She has been a good prison ghost for 12 years. She looks at Polish prisons from a foreign perspective. She thinks that every prison reflects the biggest social problems. And our biggest problem is alcoholism.

According to God’s plan

Did she plan to minister in prisons? She did not think about it. The charisma of her Order of the Sisters of the Holy Family, originating in Italy, focuses on the education of children and youth. Today she says, ‘This must have been God’s plan’. As far as her ministry in the prison in Kielce is concerned, most circumstances were unfavourable: language barrier, her young age (she was around 30 and her Sicilian appearance). But her inner urge was so strong that she could not ignore it. On some Wednesday she went to Piaski, to the House of Detention, and she has kept going there for 12 years. Always on Wednesdays, Sundays and holidays, Sr. Nazarena is with the prisoners. She prepares simple catecheses, helps them prepare the liturgy or special services, e.g. the Way of the Cross, the Nativity Play or short religious spectacles. She sings eagerly with them. The prisoners keep asking, ‘Nazarenka, when will you come to sing with us?’ Sr. Nazarena is first of all open to talk to them and even more she is ready to listen. ‘You know, perhaps nobody has talked to them; they need to talk. They slowly learn to trust me and they open themselves. They say that then they began understanding something; they realise (sometimes very slowly) that they have done evil. And this is not simple: to discern good from evil’, she says. ‘I always mean values, building people as new creations, evoking love that they have never experienced’, Sr. Nazarena explains.

I do not ask until they speak themselves

She is always faithful to this principle. In her opinion respect for people requires that. She does not judge and she never criticises. She helps. She accompanies their first contacts on the way to rebuild their humanity. Behind the bars she has found very much humanity that has not been given any chance... What caused that lack of chance? Moral poverty, which is much worse than the material poverty. This is the whole baggage of difficult, complicated lives: pathology in their families and in their closest environments, alcoholism from their early school years, their neglected education (some prisoners are illiterate), their poor religious instruction and sacramental lives. One can hardly speak about some advanced forms of catechisation in prisons. Sometimes it is simply reading a passage from the Bible, a simple explanation, and mainly these are conversations. About what? That God loves us. This is the most important thing to tell them. They might never have heard that God loves them, that someone loves them.

Humanity regained

Basia’s son was only 20 when he died suddenly. Nobody knew him here but all shed tears and felt sorry for Basia. ‘Nazarena, how can you bury a child at the age of 20?’ they asked dramatically. Agnieszka sang Christmas carols beautifully; she used to attend Mass. She served her sentence and was released. She met Sr. Nazarena in some supermarket; she kissed her. Being faithful to her principles Sr. Nazarena did not ask about anything because Agnieszka might have wanted to forget, she might have erased that stage of her life. It was her right. It happens that after being released prisoners do not recognise those they knew. They want to forget quickly that time, place and those people. Dominik entered the way of spiritual conversion. He has corresponded with a Benedictine monk and in Sr. Nazarena’s opinion this correspondence has an enormous therapeutic value. Dominik knows that he has done evil. He committed a murder and was sentenced. Dominik has already got to know the taste of good. He himself has resolved to do penance: he gave up drinking coffee and smoking. This is a big sacrifice. He will still stay in prison for several years. Malgosia had already finished prestige studies when she got entangled with drugs and committed many crimes. She served her sentence. She was released and her life has become normal again. She writes letters that are full of thanksgiving. And so do others. Reflections on the Divine Mercy, reflections on life, on the Polish Pope, words of gratitude – a large collection of writings and letters. ‘It could seem that in the place where the Word of God has been proclaimed for a thousand years, the place the Holy Father came from, there is no work for missionaries. But it turns out that this is not the case. The place where one can do many things is our penitential house. There you can meet Sr. Nazarena, the missionary from sunny Italy. She tells us how much people need the Divine Mercy; that there is Someone who loves us boundlessly and unselfishly – Jesus Christ. She convinces us who have harmed so many people that the most important commandment is to love your neighbour. It is not easy to explain that to people who have not known the concept of love and mercy so far. This missionary tells us about the Son of God who heals the body and soul, who forgives every crime if we trust him. Many of us have believed that they have not lost all…’ According to Sr. Nazarena (and many therapists) the reason for most committed crimes is alcohol. It is, unfortunately, a Polish custom to drink alcohol on every occasion, a certain pressure to drink even in the so-called decent families, not mentioning the distorted environments, children and young people who are brought up ‘in the street.’
Alcohol has always been there. Alcohol causes irreversible changes in the psyche. Can we then blame completely young people for the terrible deeds they commit if they have no control over their lives? Alcohol has softened their brains. They have never been told that they could lead different lives. They, prisoners, will return to their neglected environments, to the streets. The so-called normal world does not want them. There are not enough jobs for them or even more, they lack motivation to work. That’s why it is so important – it is a priority – to regain the human persons slowly, arduously rebuilding their humanity. For example, we can begin from the simple prayer ‘Our Father.’ Many of them have not got to know this prayer.

Talents of the rejected

Sr. Nazarena helps them rebuild humanity in themselves by using their talents that are revealed while preparing religious spectacles, performances of the Passion of the Lord and the liturgical services. They stage the Nativity plays; prepare the solemn liturgy of Ash Wednesday and the Way of the Cross on Good Friday. ‘These are wonderful and deep reflections and one would like to publish them’, says Sr. Nazarena. The time of Lent is important. The thing is to point to them that this period could be a chance for them to enter the way of conversion. Besides they can learn the history of salvation, e.g. by memorising fragments from the Bible. And finally, these practices are the ways to make them feel worthy since they begin thinking that they can do many things, that they want to do them and they can hear the applaud for the first time in their lives.

Some reflection on the Way of the Cross celebrated in prison

Twelfth Station – Lord Jesus dies on the cross: ‘…How often do we face this scene in our lives and what is worse, our attitude remains the same. No feelings, no compassion, only the curiosity of the observers. Lord, make us love our crosses. Save us from the prison of our sins. And so we passed indifferently by the chance of salvation. Can an earthquake take us out of this indifference? Will I then remember what the death of the Saviour means for me? Each person must reach for this gift, this grace of salvation himself…’ In her prison ministry Sr. Nazarena actually meets only helpers: the prison management that supports these catechetical-therapeutic initiatives, the tutors who want to collaborate and eagerly help her and the local bishops. Bishop Kazimierz Ryczan of Kielce uses enthusiastic words while speaking about Sr. Nazarena, calling her ‘Criminal Sister.’ He asks her about the progress in her ministry and about the prisoners under her care. He helps and supports her. People’s help and positive attitudes are very valuable. They give her strength since it is not an easy job at all. This is not a nursery and this is not a hospital. This is a prison. ‘Prisoners have been placed on my way and they have become good for me, believe me it is true… The service is as if a gift of Lord God for me. It is a lesson that good is everywhere’, Sr. Nazarena stresses. ‘God is where the poor are’, she adds.

Prisoners’ names have been changed.

"Niedziela" 9/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl