From FaithND (University of Notre Dame), edited from the original published in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine. CLICK HERE FOR ONLINE VERSION
By Father Ron Raab, CSC
Last year I was called to the hospital to anoint a woman dying of cancer. The chaplain informed me over the phone while I was still in my office that the patient was also a prisoner. He explained that an officer would be at her side and that my presence was already approved to pray with her.
When I arrived at the door of her hospital room, I knocked lightly. I entered and saw the woman in bed near the door. A heavy-set officer sat on the other side of her bed, just a couple of feet away. I bent down at her bedside and she immediately began speaking about her faith. She told me how much she believed in God, and she prayed for her many children and grandchildren. Her eyes sparkled; her skin seemed thin, her arms and hands revealing her many tattoos. She had a profound faith that embraced her experience with cancer.
As I bent down and slowly opened the container of oil, my eyes caught the handcuffs dangling from the officer’s belt. The more I tried to focus on the intimacy of the moment and the profound encounter with her ailing body, I could not help but have one eye on the handcuffs that were reminding her of the earthly ties that still bound her. The more I spoke with her and prayed with her, the more I felt that she was one of the most spiritually free people I had met in a long while.
This image of the handcuffs and the anointing remains with me. We all seek the freedom of God’s love for us, and yet we are all bound by past decisions and lives that have not turned out as we had planned.
I recognize this bedside as the place of God’s mercy. These are the people whom Jesus longs to hold, to heal, and to forgive. This is the bedside of liberation and love. As my years of experience creep up on me, I surrender to such mercy because I do not have any other answers that will set people free.
Through many years of listening to people on the margins of society, I know that I have no power over God’s love when I open the container of sacred oil, or sit in the quiet, sacred room where we offer Confessions. I simply gaze on the fact of the human handcuffs of sin and the divine liberation of love for all people, in all times and seasons.
God’s mercy reveals itself from people who are marginalized, broken, lonely, addicted, and in pain. These are the people who will define for us what freedom is and how we are to find the Shepherd who runs after the lost and holds tightly the lives of the sinful.
I believe in the freedom that our ancestors found in faith. This is the freedom that I take from the altar to the bedsides of people who wait for miraculous healings and for God to unlock the cuffs of their sin and past mistakes.
Father Ron Raab is a Holy Cross priest and pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This essay first appeared on his blog, Broken But Not Divided, which is worth further exploration.