On the Sunday after Easter, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Divine Mercy, a message that has become the life’s work of Father Henryk Sawarski. A native Pole, the missionary has been working on the island of Madagascar for more than 40 years. He has been a pastoral worker at the prison of Port-Bergé since 2015. Time and again, he has witnessed God touch the souls of the inmates and help them to begin a new life. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) donated 19,500 euros to set up a chapel and a small library to carry out pastoral care at the prison.
Father Henryk Sawarski had never set foot in a prison before starting to work there as a pastoral worker. “When I drove by a prison, I saw the prison walls topped by barbed wire, or heard people talking about it,” the Polish missionary explained to the pastoral charity. Father Henryk was transferred to the diocese of Port-Bergé in the year that was declared an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy by Pope Francis. “The Pope issued a call for corporal and spiritual acts of mercy. When I found out that the prison didn’t have any clergy, I suddenly realized that this was the place where I could best spread the mercy of God. Today I know that I myself was given this epiphany by the Merciful Jesus.”
Father Henryk was deeply moved by the dismal conditions he encountered at the prison. He first began by relieving their practical material needs: he supplied the inmates with food, clothing and medicines, improved hygienic conditions and exterminated vermin. “The inmates were astonished and asked themselves, ‘Why is this “Vazaha” (white man) doing this? Why is he spending so much money and devoting so much of his time to us? Is he trying to buy us so that he can convert us?’ But no, I did not say anything about prayer and religion, I remained silent and the Merciful Jesus spoke to them. It was the most beautiful surprise I have ever had when they asked me one day, ‘Father, when are we going to pray and when are you going to celebrate Holy Mass?’”
Only about a dozen of the more than 200 inmates at the prison are Catholic. The vast majority are animists, several are Protestants or Muslims. “I treat all of them like my own children,” Father Henryk said. All of the prisoners took part in the first Christmas Mass, which was held outdoors and in the searing heat by Bishop Georges Varkey.
Confessions were heard in the courtyard of the prison. “When the other prisoners saw one of them kneeling there, they asked themselves, ‘What are they doing there?’ But the example they set caught on and, just imagine, even the Protestants have followed, and those who are sympathetic to Catholicism also come to ask for a blessing. They talk about their guilt, and it is overwhelming to see how God’s mercy writes straight with the crooked lines of a person’s convoluted life. It is a gigantic step along the path towards inner change and conversion, but requires time and patience. It is important for the inmates to repent what they have done, desire to mend their ways and promise that they will never return to them once they leave prison.”
Conversations play an essential role. “It is important to listen patiently as they talk about these complicated situations. Sometimes I tell them that I can’t offer them a quick fix, but the inmates say, ‘Thank you, Father, for listening to me!’” The prayers that Father Henryk says over them, the sign of the cross that he makes on their foreheads, the blessings with holy water and the cross of ashes on Ash Wednesday are important to the inmates. Catechesis, readings of Scripture as well as a men’s and women’s choir are also included in the pastoral care programme of the prison; however, other essential components are literacy courses, sports and manual work such as basket weaving, because these also represent an important step on the path towards a new life.
Father Henryk believes that prison is “a special kind of hospital”. Those incarcerated there are the emotionally and mentally battered, the morally broken, the intellectually uneducated, as many in the bush country were not able to attend even primary school, and the physically damaged. “It is necessary to invest a great deal of time and effort in order to gather any fruit, but there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over a righteous person …,” the missionary explained.
Father Henryk told ACN about an inmate who has in the meantime been released and started a new life. “Jean was in prison because he had sold the meat of stolen cattle. In prison, he yearned for his wife and his children, who were no longer able to go to school due to lack of money. I often talked with him – also about spiritual things – and he said to me, ‘Father, when I get out of here and work again, I will look for something else to do so that I will no longer sell the meat of stolen cattle, I will no longer cheat my customers by using false weights so that I will not have to return to prison. I will raise my children to be good people and I promise that I will pray fervently.’ He was a Protestant. And he said, ‘When I come to Port-Bergé, I will bring you and the inmates something.’ And that is what happened. Occasionally he would bring meat and when I asked him, ‘Jean, but this meat is not from stolen cattle, is it?’, he would answer, ‘No, no!’ Occasionally he would also bring some rice or fruit with him. Is this not a wonderful example of someone who has mended his ways and is living days of mercy?”
Thanks to donations from ACN, the prison now has a chapel and a small library to carry out pastoral care. Father Henryk is very grateful for this. “Christ himself teaches in the gospels, ‘I was in prison, and ye came unto me’ (Mt. 25:36). The veneration of Divine Mercy is a crucial and effective factor in the process of change and conversion. Our chapel serves this purpose. It stands under the patronage of Saint Dismas, the good thief on the cross, who is an example of personal change and conversion. Nothing is ever lost – you can be saved, even at the last moment, as Christ promised to the thief from the cross. “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43).