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The Long Way Home

Most of my adult life has been spent hidden away in an alien world, a strange place that has served as a sort of purgatory: a Georgia state prison. Although I am not proud of having sinned my way into this place, neither am I ashamed of the Catholic Faith that has strengthened and sustained me through my incarceration.

I reached this incongruous state—convicted felon and faithful Catholic—by a long and winding road. I pray that you who read this account, necessarily abbreviated, might receive the blessing of the Lord’s grace.

Baptized but not practicing

Although I was born into a Catholic family—at least on my mother’s side—and baptized fifteen days later, I do not remember practicing the Faith during childhood. By the time I was four, my mother had ceased attending Mass. I had no idea what being a Catholic was. My experience of Christianity consisted of Christmas presents and Easter candy.

During the early ’70s, my father became interested in the Baha’I faith, a syncretistic offshoot of Islam that accepts the scriptures of all faiths. At Baha’I gatherings I first heard the stories of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and St. John the Baptist—probably others as well. I was only six, and these stories were all I knew of religion.

What contributed more to forming my religious identity was my parents’ divorce a few years later. At the time I didn’t realized how much it affected me; as an adult, however, I recognized how devastating it was—and how it colored my relationship with each of my parents.

Since I was only nine, I felt like my father had abandoned my mother and me. I blamed him, while my mother was (in my child’s eyes) completely innocent. I grew even closer to her, and as she began to renew her Catholic faith, I began to embrace a Catholic identity, even though I had no idea what it meant.

Alone in the world

One day in March 1984, I came home to find my mother unconscious. After rushing with her to St. Joseph’s Hospital in an ambulance, I sat alone—scared and anxious—in the waiting room. A kind nun, the director of chaplaincy services, consoled me until a doctor finally emerged with news: My mother had a brain tumor. She needed immediate surgery. Three months later—at forty years old—my mother died.

At the age of eighteen, I was suddenly alone in the world. I had lost my mother, had burned my bridges with my father, and blamed God for everything. On the outside I seemed to be keeping it together (I thought), but inside I was falling apart.

A year later, I made a horrendous mistake, one that would land me somewhere I never imagined: in a state prison. I was arrested and, in a surreal daze, called my father from the county jail. I had told myself that I would never ask him for anything, but I thought (wrongly) that I had hit bottom, and I had no one else.

It took ten days for my father to bail my out of jail. He could have left me there, though, so I was grateful. While out on bond, my thoughts turned—perhaps predictably—to religion. I struck a deal with God: I would serve him if he would help me out of my mess. It shouldn’t be difficult, I thought. After all, I’ve never been in trouble before with the law. God could arrange a sentence of probation.

But how and where should I worship him? The pain of my mother’s death was still acute enough that it governed my decision. I reasoned that if God had led her back to the Catholic Church, then that was where I should go, too. I began to attend Mass and RCIA classes.

Behind bars

As my court date approached, I decided to plead guilty, confident that I would receive probation. But God rejected my deal. I was sentenced to twenty years, ten to be served in prison.

After returning to jail, I lay in a maximum-security cell in despair; it seemed I had lost everything in my life. I picked up a Bible. It fell open to the Gospels, and I began to read: “Seek first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matt. 6:33, NAB).

I was transferred to one of the roughest prisons in Georgia. More than a thousand inmates, almost all of them younger than twenty-five, established their reputations through violence. I spent four years there; fights occurred daily, and attempted escapes, and suicides and murders, weren’t uncommon. Through it all, God kept me safe; moreover, I earned an associate degree and worked in the prison library, where I read voraciously—mostly religion, philosophy, and history.

I began to understand that the universe was not all about me and that there was a truth that existed independently of my knowledge of it. Truth, I thought, was not whatever I wanted it to be but was itself, immutable, whether or not I liked it. The problem was, I didn’t know what the truth was, and so I set out to discover it, to “seek first the kingdom.”

Search for the source

For the next four years, I conducted a sometimes arduous search. Having conceded the logic of objective truth, I wondered whether there was a God. Perhaps I had bargained with and blamed only a figment of my imagination. I undertook a comparative study of religions and was struck by the many similarities—even direct parallels—especially regarding morality.

Even if this common moral code were not divine, even if it did not precede humanity, I decided it was clearly ancient and nearly unanimous among the tribes of man. Furthermore, even if this collective morality were not objectively “true,” it had helped permitted mankind to become civilized (and the further we stray from these morals, the less civilized we become).

This led me to another realization: If everything comes from something, and nothing is greater than its cause, then the source of the world and its imperfections must be greater than the world. But if this source is itself less than perfect, then it too must have an even greater source.

Obviously, this causality could not go on forever. Somewhere there must be a perfect source, one that would be self-sufficient, for there could be nothing greater from which it could ever have come. This perfect source, I realized, is what people called God. (Little did I know that thinkers such as St. Anselm had already figured this out!)

Comparing Western religions

By this point, all forms of Eastern thought were unsatisfactory; only the monotheistic faiths of the West—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—held to a single perfect creator. Since Judaism is the oldest, I gave much thought to this ancient faith. But when I considered the claims of Christianity, I realized that all of God’s dealings with humanity and with Israel were in preparation for a Messiah, a Savior. There was no doubt that Christianity was based on actual historical events; even pagans and Jews who were contemporaries of Jesus testified to his ministry and his earliest followers.

Thus I was faced with Christianity’s central claim: Did Jesus, who claimed to be the Messiah and Savior, rise from the dead? It is historically certain that the apostles and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other early Christians were tortured and martyred for the belief that he did. Would they have suffered for a hoax? It seemed unlikely.

Furthermore, the history of Christianity lent credence to its truthfulness. This tiny sect of believers would in less than four centuries extend through the known world and convert the very power that had tried to exterminate it, the might Roman Empire. It had endured time and again, against all enemies, and was responsible for two millennia of art, music, architecture, philosophy, science, industry, and government—all of Western civilization.

By this point, only a sense of fairness compelled me to consider Islam. Although I eventually read the entire Quran, even a cursory study showed me that while Islam “honored” Jesus as a prophet, it denied the Crucifixion and Resurrection, events that I was convinced were true. It seemed that although Mohammed, surrounded by pagan contemporaries, had rightly preached one God, he did not preach the one Truth.

The one, true Church

After coming to believe in God—and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, as Lord and Savior—I almost had a crisis of faith. I asked myself why there were so many churches. There seemed to be dozens of denominations (actually, there are tens of thousands), each disagreeing on Christian doctrine. This, I thought, could not be a manifestation of the Truth.

Hadn’t Jesus said he would build his church (singular) and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (cf. Matt. 16:18)? Which of these myriad churches, I wondered, was the one that Jesus founded?

I remembered reading about the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation beginning in 1517. Of course, I thought, for the first thousand years of Christianity there was only one church: the Catholic Church. Everything else sprang from it. I didn’t know or understand everything about the Catholic Faith, but I came to believe that it was the one church that Jesus had founded.

I began to learn more about my newfound faith, and in June 1990 I was paroled. Despite my intellectual assent to the propositions of the Church, I was still enslaved by disordered passions and made only a halfhearted attempt to resume RCIA classes.

Unmerited blessings

In retrospect, it was predictable where this would lead: Within fifteen months, I committed a similar crime and was returned to prison, this time with nearly ten years of revoked probation and twenty years to run consecutively. Since September 1991, I have been incarcerated on this second conviction, and it appears I will not see freedom before my maximum release date of June 10, 2021.

Nevertheless, I have received numerous unmerited blessings during these twenty-three years in prison. I have been active in the KAIROS Prison Ministry since 1994 and was also confirmed that year; earned my bachelor’s degree in 1995; became a member of the Third Order of Mary in 2010; and later that year was accepted into Franciscan University of Steubenville’s graduate program via distance education. I am working toward my master of arts degree in theology and Christian ministry.

I am most humbled, however, that the Holy Spirit has made use of my journey and my faith to lead others into the Church. I know that it doesn’t matter where I serve him, only that I serve him.

Only by the grace of God, received through the prayers and sacraments of the Church, am I sustained through my tribulations. With total submission I accept God’s will for the rest of my life and rejoice that, though I strayed far away, the Lord has led me home—even in a place such as this.

 

Tax-deductible donations to the author’s scholarship fund to help him complete his advanced college degree, made payable to St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, may be sent to: Richard J. T. Clark Scholarship Fund, c/o St. Joseph Cafasso Prison Ministries, 12460 Crabapple Rd., Ste. 202-213, Alpharetta, GA 30004.

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