By Dale Recinella
Years ago in the streets of Tallahassee, the itinerant mentally ill taught me a tremendous lesson. As payee for several of them, I handled their government disability funds. Most of the meager monthly amount went for rent, utilities and food. But it was possible to save some for Christmas. I had expected them to joyfully splurge on themselves in a Christmas shopping binge.
“What would you like to do with your Christmas money?” I had asked one of my charges, a tall man in his mid-50s who had been no different from any of us “normal” people until a physical brain injury in an accident. He paused thoughtfully, pushing out his left cheek with his tongue.
“Ya know,” he looked down shyly, rubbing his ear as he spoke, “Since I gotten sick, I’ve never been able to buy any presents for my friends.”
In response to my astonishment, he began shuffling his feet and stuttering apologetically.
“R-r-really, Mister Dale, I-I-I just want to g-g-g-ive presents to my friends. That-at-at’s all I want for Christmas.”
I grabbed him in a bear hug. “We are going Christmas shopping for your friends!”
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Our Catholic faith teaches that we are each made in the image of God. That is the basis for the dignity of human life. Of all the traits manifested by that God, perhaps none has been more pronounced than God’s propensity to give gifts – even the gift of God’s only begotten Son. By grace, it is in our nature to give.
Our Pope John Paul II has challenged us to recognize this dignity, this image of the Giver, in every human being. He has specifically challenged us to see “that the dignity of human life never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”
Now I walk the corridors of Florida’s death row with the memory of my friend and the teaching of my Church in hand. How do my brothers on death row live out the image of God the Giver?
I have been amazed. As they sit for hours on end in their cells, many allow their time to be redeemed and the image of God to be expressed by preparing gifts for others.
One elderly fellow shows me a picture of a six-year-old girl. The image of the Giver in him wants to surprise her. With an ear-to-ear toothless grin, he proudly displays the sweater he is knitting for her.
Another death row inmate hand-paints a replica of a traditional Catholic picture for his daughter. He himself is Protestant. But the image of God in him reaches beyond doctrine to give a gift that will inspire and encourage her while her father is on death row.
Still another meticulously crafts Bible verses in calligraphy to send to the mission fields. A mentally retarded young man spends long hours writing letters of spiritual encouragement to tired ministers of God’s Word. Yet another is drawing a clown card in color for a third-grade CCD student.
Recently, a Florida newspaper reported the effort by some in Florida to prohibit death row inmates from having the instruments they need to give to others, to replace Godliness with idleness.
My Catholic response is absolutely clear: the dignity of human life, the image of God the Giver, must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.
We must protect society without denying criminals the chance to reform.
Last published: December 7, 2006 in I Was in Prison. First published January 20, 2000, in The Florida Catholic. ©2000 Dale S. Recinella. Used with permission. All rights reserved. No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
© 2011 Dale S. Recinella
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
This article appears in CMN’s December 2011 newsletter.