When I learned about it, I registered my objection. No Mass by the highest Pontiff in Prison, not in my watch. It is not about prison, it is about a handful of prisoners. I was worried about those with mental derangement. The National Penitentiary is almost brimming to spill over proportion at 156% congestion rate. And those stuck in this community are no mean fly by night felon or ordinary snatchers. A lot of them have been adjudged by the judiciary as dangerous and hostile. Aside from drug lords and gambling lords, leaders of kidnapping and carnapping syndicates, there are confirmed bombers, rebels and unrepentant homicidal convicts. And they are literally lumped into imperfection.
Now, allowing persons of national import into this community where condition has achieved unbearable limits is pure foolhardiness. I will never be a part of this scenario. But somewhere between invitation and acceptance, there was spiritual audacity. The faith must be pursued wherever it would be. And prison is most likely the place where it should be conducted. I lost my case and the Catholic leadership was allowed to spread out his blessings.
December 22, 2013 at exactly 8AM, a group of religious nuns entered the prison gates and informed the officers on the arrival of His Excellency, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle*. The 57 year old Church leader made it a point to continue with the tradition started by almost all Cardinals before him in celebrating Mass in the National Penitentiary. For me, it was not tradition that matters, it was a security nightmare. In Vatican the best intelligence and most organized security system ever employed failed when two incidents involving two Popes were almost fatally assassinated. One was shot. One was stabbed. This is in Vatican which is a clean area, sanitized by technology and the finest spooks in the world.
And here is one situation where the highest spiritual leader of the land would celebrate Mass, face to face with the most dangerous sector of society, a community filled to the brim with what the judicial system would ascribe as persons whose conduct and crime would prescribe life imprisonment, a facility holding on specie known sociologically as pure predators. Anyone with a name, anybody with gravitas would surely be a perfect target.
The High Mass was celebrated with sacred silence and seriousness. The prisoners were at arm’s length during the spiritual exercise. The prison security force, ideal for maintaining order in a 5 thousand capacity population is stretched out to cordon 14 thousand ogling souls. The nuns and seminarians including a handful of volunteers are no match when an explosive trouble would erupt. I could not synchronize my breathing anymore. How I wish to pluck out the good Cardinal after his sermon and unload him outside the prison gates. He should not suffer the pain of waiting for danger to form in front of him.
The Holy Mass ended 11:20 AM, the Blessing was made by the Cardinal and he was escorted by a group of religious facilitators, cordoned by prison security, out from the Chapel and into the main gate. After the regulation picture taking, the religious leader was accosted into his van—safe, contented and sound. The religious program highlighting the Christmas Day was formally introduced.
All is fair and well. BUT WAIT! Not everything in the celebrated Mass was pure saintly serenity. There were two incidents that were buried from the consciousness of the Cardinal and those who attended the Mass. Two incidents involving mentally deranged inmates. One nearly got off to embrace the Cardinal during the Mass, the other one, immediately after the Blessings almost broke way, knife in hand and about to inflict suicidal scenario. The first incident was blunted by fellow inmates. The second incident involving an armed inmate was diffused by prison personnel.
It was good enough that no one from the party of the good Cardinal ever suspected that something happened. Even the nuns and volunteer religious workers were not aware that there was trouble somewhere near. Had anyone of the two ever created a scene, that episode would have been on front page already. Had the blessed Catholic leader harmed, that would have ended my career in prison which started 37 years ago.
Before the Mass, an inmate was surprised at the demeanor of his fellow inmate. He drank water from the aquarium. When he was chastised by the gang leader stating that the water was not safe and that it might poison him, the fellow stood his ground and pointed at the swimming creatures that if the water is poisoned, the fishes would have died already! He was promptly observed during the Mass.
The second inmate was a bit repentant as if he was struck by the Holy Spirit. He withdrew in a corner and flashed a homemade knife to the astonishment of some inmates in nearby confessional. There was a calibrated commotion. The inmate went to a corner and announced that he will commit hara kiri. As the prison security personnel were about to pounce, the inmate opened a packet full of shit and began to rub on his body and extremities. The air fouled and the security officers nearly fainted. The supervisor offered the inmate with drinks which the latter immediately accepted. The juice was laced with sleep inducing drugs until finally, the inmate was subdued and brought to the hospital. That also ended the brief commotion that would have marred the yuletide program.
The religious program was a successful blessing for the majority. It was however a nightmare for me.
*Tagle is the Professor of Dogmatic Synthesis at the Graduate School of Theology of San Carlos Seminary, the archdiocesan major seminary of Manila, and an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the Loyola School of Theology of Ateneo de Manila University. Tagle has become involved in many social issues in the Philippines with emphasis on helping the poor and the needy while maintaining opposition against practical atheism, abortion, contraception, and the Reproductive Health Bill. He currently wields strong religious and political influence as the country’s primate, with an estimated 2.8 million professed Roman Catholics in his Archdiocese. Tagle speaks fluent Italian and English in addition to his native Tagalog, and is also proficient in reading Spanish, French and Latin.