I have been fortunate to visit inmates in the Philippines National Penitentiary in Manila for more than a decade now. About 18,000 men live there in shockingly close quarters. Like the prisoners you would see in Hollywood movies, or on television documentaries, most inmates boast tattoos. The most extraordinary, artistic and elaborate ones that you are ever likely to see. An inmate once explained it to me. “All our personal possessions are lost along the way, in prison transfers, in thefts, or confiscated by guards in cell raids,” he said. “We have no mementos or photos of past lives, home or family, no digital images. So our bodies are our permanent photo-albums.” Hence you see all over their bodies the names of people dear to them, as simple as Ama and Ina (“mum and dad”), or the symbol of their gang, or even the bold name of their gang commander (a sort of passport for protection), perhaps the name of someone who once showed them kindness. Some tattoo artists can engrave the perfect likeness of a wife or girlfriend on a man’s arm or chest.
Religious images, of course, abound on those human galleries. The crucified Christ and a compassionate image of Mary are always to be seen. But among the most common are images of the Sacred Heart. In all sizes and variations. Why this image? Why the Sacred Heart of Jesus? I think it is because these men are so often bereft of love. They are too often forgotten about. But they have a sense that if all else has failed them – their families, their friends, the judicial system – then God has not. They don’t know any fancy definitions of God, the sophisticated language of the theologians. They just know the simplest of descriptions: God is love. And that is all they need to know. They see in this heart-symbol a reminder of God’s unconditional love for us in Jesus. Unconditional. That means we don’t merit such love. We don’t earn it. We can’t lose it. It just is. God just loves. God is love. For an inmate who has next-to-nothing, this is a gift beyond price.
With the heart, these men are tapping into a universal metaphor for life and love. In its ancient sense, the heart is the place where intellect, emotion, spirit and will all converge in the human self. We understand that. Hearts abound on Valentine’s Day. We describe someone generous as “large-hearted”. We cross our hearts in a gesture of promise. To say, “Yes, with all my heart” is to absolutely commit to something. And when someone is “broken-hearted”, they are crushed by grief. “Heart to heart” describes conversations which are at the deepest level of our being. Yes, we all know what “heart” language means.
The heart is so apt a symbol for Jesus, the God-Man. Jesus’ entire life was beating with love for us. And yet, like so many men and women who pour out their lives in loving service of others, his was also a love of the pierced heart, on the cross. The brutal response of people who did not understand, or were threatened by, such love and its implications. Those inmates in Manila know what that means. Many carry a wounded love that is the product of separation in time and in distance. Sometimes it is a wound that is opened again in being abandoned by ones whose love has died, or has been taken elsewhere. Along the way, we all learn what it is to be wounded by love.
This image is a painting by an artist prisoner I know from the Maximum Security compound. He has created a contemporary image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Here the artist has Jesus is dressed in the orange t-shirt of a maximum security prisoner in his dormitory. I think it is an image saying two things to us. Firstly, Jesus is showing his heart and manifesting his love to those who are most despised and most forgotten about – the lifers, those so-called hard-core crims. The ones from whom people throw away the key. Except Jesus. By and large, society hates them with a passion. But He loves them with a passion. The image also reminds us of that Gospel story told by Jesus: “When I was in prison, you visited me.” In other words, we are also expected to live out Jesus’ love, just as he did. Practically. Especially with those in greatest need.
In the early hours of the morning we celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart, we sent the first batch of our Year 10 boys on their service week to Bourke. They will look for the heart of Jesus there. In ways may well be unaware of, they might become the heart of Jesus to others whose lives they will share and touch. That is why service opportunities and immersions hold such a central place in Jesuit schools. That is why we invited members of the Cana communities to join us for our Sacred Heart Mass.
The young French university student, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, who founded the St Vincent de Paul Society, once wrote:
“There is a useful method for strengthening hearts that lack courage. This is to give them the privilege of seeing the poor, of being shown Our Lord Jesus Christ not only in pictures painted by great artists but of being shown Jesus Christ and his wounds in the person of the poor.
The sons of noblemen must learn what it means to be hungry and thirsty, or to live in an attic without clothing or furniture. They must be able to see dire poverty in the guise of sick children, of children who are weeping. They must be able to see them and love them.”
Ozanam is talking to “the sons of noblemen”, the privileged ones. That means he’s talking to our community. Compared to the bulk of humanity – maybe even most of Australia – we here know the security and influence of Ozanam’s old-time nobility. But Ozanam is asking for us an even greater privilege. What is it? He asks for “the privilege of seeing the poor, of being shown Jesus Christ and his wounds in the person of the poor.”
We regularly remind ourselves here that Jesus in the Gospels said, “from those who have been given much, much more is expected”. He is speaking squarely to us. We try to understand what such a challenge means here. We hope we can rise to its implications.
This is what our Riverview culture teaches us. Our own sense of justice compels us. And the love of the heart of Jesus inspires us.