Fr. George David Byers: When Jesus Was in Prison

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post written by Father George David Byers, S.S.L., S.T.D.

As a way to connect with longtime TSW readers, Father Gordon asked that I include at the beginning of this post (1) a biographical note and (2) a mention as to just how it is that I came to know TSW.

(1) Like all priests, I’m totally unworthy to be a priest. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in the formation of seminarians and priests. I’ve always wanted to and finally have become a hermit (HolySoulsHermitage), with the desire of offering the hermitage for priests going through the purgatory of this life or the next (About). I look at the hermitage not as a running away, or something esoteric, but as an intensification of active priestly ministry, taking up various all too often ignored aspects of our Lord’s priestly ministry.

(2) Like all priests, I’ve now and again heard of priests who were unjustly accused and wrongly convicted, with my eyes glazing over, my ears turning deaf, my mind clouding up, and my heart becoming heavy. It’s not that I wasn’t outraged. It’s not that I didn’t care. It’s certainly not that I was caving into political correctness. It’s that I wasn’t ready to be in total solidarity. Offering the hermitage for such suffering priests has turned that around, for the Lord takes such things seriously. With Jesus providing grace to this unworthy priest, I would no longer be a corpse in front of a computer screen clicking away from the occasional blog posts about Father Gordon that I would see in the blogosphere. It all hit me of a sudden, like a cross, out of nowhere, smashing me to the ground, a great grace, lifting me up, then, to be a better priest. Now, thanks be to Jesus, I’m in total solidarity. After all, Jesus Himself was in prison.


Is it possible to rejoice in the love of our risen Lord if there is any one of us who continues to live the prison experience of Jesus back in that first Lent, that first Holy Week, on that first Holy Thursday Night, after the Last Supper, after the singing on the way to Gethsemane, after the betrayal wrought by one of His own Apostles, after the interrogations and mocking and spitting and the beatings in the Sanhedrin?

Those who live in solidarity with those experiencing Jesus’ Holy Thursday Night imprisonment, especially the actual prisoners themselves, are, I believe, more capable than others of rejoicing in the love of the risen Lord Jesus.

Many TSW readers know of Anna Katharina Emmerick, who died in 1824, and was beatified on 3 October, 2004, by Blessed John Paul II, only some months after the screening of The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson partially based that film on The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, dictated by Anna Katharina to Clemens Brentano, whose secretarial skills seem to have left something to be desired. Nevertheless, The Holy See praises her accounts.

She speaks of the Lord’s imprisonment. Although we don’t read of this in the Gospels, there is a space of time that is entirely conspicuous for its lack of description, the hours between the initial questioning and mocking of Jesus that first Holy Thursday evening and the following morning. It is a period of time in which, all things being equal, anybody in Jesus’ position would have been imprisoned for safe keeping until the next day.

If one is following Jesus in solidarity, will what happened to Him during those hours not be of alarming concern, all the more because of the silence? Were the horrible things that happened to Him unmentionable? These are the hours alluded to in Chapter XII of Blessed Anna Katharina’s dictations. But then we are all the more frightened for Jesus’ sake when we find out that she too cannot speak of the indignities and tortures suffered by Jesus in prison:

blessed-anne-catherine-emmerichIt is quite impossible to describe all that the Holy of Holies suffered […] for the sight affected me so excessively that I became really ill, and I felt as if I could not survive it. We ought, indeed, to be ashamed of that weakness and susceptibility which renders us unable to listen composedly to the descriptions, or speak without repugnance, of those sufferings which our Lord endured so calmly and patiently for our salvation. […] I, too, am a great sinner, and my sins caused these sufferings. […] If, alas! we reflected seriously on this, we should repeat with much greater fervor the words which we find so often in prayer-books: Lord, grant that I may die, rather than ever wilfully offend thee again by sin.’ Jesus continued to pray for His enemies. […] I was so completely overcome, and touched to hear Him return thanks to His Father for the terrible sufferings which He had already endured for me, and for the still greater which He was about to endure. I could only repeat over and over with the greatest fervor, Lord, I beseech Thee, give me these sufferings: they belong to me: I have deserved them in punishment for my sins.

TSW readers know that when we see Jesus’ sufferings in each other being offered for each other, that this is as an act of intercession, of love stronger than death. When was Jesus in prison? Just Holy Thursday Night? Or is it not in the dark night of every age in which there is someone, somewhere in a struggle which is not his own, a struggle which, as Father Gordon wrote in Saint Patrick and the Labyrinthine Ways, “is rather a small, small part in the immense fabric of grace woven by God,” a struggle that, united with Jesus’ solidarity with us, brings us together in Jesus? Paradoxically, the tinier we are, the more immersed we are in the suffering of solidarity, the more grandeur of the mystery of God’s love becomes evident to us wherever, whenever, whoever we are (see Hebrews 11,1). So: however small our part is, it is made to be quite epic in the immense fabric of grace woven by God.

barabbasWhile we were yet sinners, Jesus offered Himself, taking on what we deserve so as to have the right in justice to have mercy on us. He takes our place, wanting us to go free. Does not our being in union with Jesus’ suffering of solidarity for us mean that our intercession will extend even to those who persecute us? Father Gordon has written a great deal about that in relation to Saint Stephen, who, while getting stoned to death, prayed for the conversion of Saint Paul (The Conversion of Saint Paul and the Cost of Discipleship).

And the epic saga continues throughout time. Remember Jesus’ first homily?

“[Jesus] unrolled the scroll [of Isaiah] and found the passage where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.’ […] He said to them, ‘Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4,16-19.21).

That “today”, that Dies Domini, that Day of the Lord, is a day on which the Jubilee redemption acceptable to the Lord would come about, not only with He Himself being poor, blinded with blood and sweat in His Passion, and oppressed, but also by His being held captive as a prisoner. Here’s a picture of what might well have been Jesus’ prison.

Jesus Prison

As the Master, so the disciple. That “today” of the fulfillment of the Good News is, in fact, today, and it is a privilege and a vote of confidence from the Lord to have the opportunity to suffer with Him, to be able to say with Father Gordon:

“The struggle I am in is not my own. It is rather a small, small part in the immense fabric of grace woven by God.”

Prisons in this “today” of the Lord may have These Stone Walls for those falsely accused… or the bamboo barricades of the Chinese re-education camps for priests and bishops faithful to Rome… or the unending horizons of burning sands of the Arabian desert for those who dare to offer Holy Mass in locked inner rooms of private apartments… the means of confining losing importance before the reality of glorious intercession that is being made with the Lord for the entire Church.

I’m sure there are some readers of TSW who know by experience that living the intercession of solidarity for the conversion of persecutors can be as frightening as hell itself, as dreadful as Jesus’ own imprisonment, for that is the depth to which our intercession of solidarity must reach in this world. It is the work of the Priest of priests. Is it not the work of all of us in Him?

dachau-priest-blockBut we are all of us weak and fragile before the horrors that can be brought full strength into our souls, and we can rebel, no matter who we are. Father Gordon’s last handful of paragraphs of Accommodations in the Garden of Good and Evil reminded me of this scene near the “priest-block” at Dachau concentration camp (which I visited back in 1977). I, for one, was horrified… and edified. Their martyrdom makes the love of the Lord shine for all to see.

Back in 1986, Cardinal Ratzinger, the most cultured, gentlemanly, scholarly, pastoral, indeed, saintly bishop I have ever known (and I’ve known very many indeed), gave a highly emotionally charged homily in Liebfrauenkirche in Munich, where he had previously been Archbishop. Present were many Jews, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. And he was now the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the old Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. In speaking of original sin, he had this to say (with my emphasis on the bit about being in prison). His horror is palpable…

“In the Genesis story […] sin begets sin […] All the sins of history are interlinked. […] Nothing seems to us today to be stranger or, indeed, more absurd than to insist upon original sin [Erbsünde, as distinct from his “sin begets sin”], since, according to our way of thinking, guilt can only be something very personal, and since God does not run a concentration camp, in which one’s relatives are imprisoned, because He is a liberating God of love, who calls each one by name.”

Not a one of us could wrap our minds around the full horror of the imprisonment into which we are all thrown by original sin should that be revealed to us. Stunned by the horror, he retreated to a lesser theory of original sin, not by propagation (the doctrine of the Church and what is actually found in Genesis, mirrored by Saint Paul), but by way of everyone individually sinning in reaction to a fallen world. Yes, there are those who, with no love for the Successor of Peter, are quick to condemn him as a heretic, oblivious to the heavy burden weighing upon him, a burden of seeing all the evil that the entire world brings to the See of Peter, a burden bringing him frequent suffering unknown to the rest of mankind. And yes, even worse, there are those who sycophantically praise this temporary misstep of Cardinal Ratzinger as if this would curry them favor with Benedict XVI. Not.

benedict-xvi-lourdesDuring his 2008 pilgrimage to Lourdes, Pope Benedict XVI, in his Angelus address of 14 September, inescapably reversed a lifetime of his previous thought on original sin, accepting that — outside of the Immaculate Conception — Adam did drag us all down into the prison of all the hellish consequences of his ever so personal decision for himself to sin. That is not to condemn God as a Kommandant of a concentration camp, but rather to praise our salvation, whereby we are brought to be as one with Jesus as we were with Adam, and more so. Jesus is the Truth who sets us free (see John 8,32) in whatever time or place.

Remember two things: (1) Sin is a self-imprisonment; (2) Our Heavenly Father “made Him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5,21). Talk about solidarity! But it can be all too much for us to be in solidarity with Jesus in His solidarity with us, unless we are singing in our hearts the Easter proclamation, the Exultet, throughout the ages: “Oh happy fault, which brought us so great a Redeemer!” When we do that, many are liberated from the worst of prisons.

God does call each of us by name, and that name, for all of us, is Jesus, the members of whose Mystical Body we are. Just as we are totally brought down by Adam’s sin, so we are entirely brought up in the salvation wrought for us by Mary’s Son. Just as we were in Adam, so we are in Christ Jesus. To this end, Jesus let Himself be imprisoned in this world, thereby setting us free, as the great Pornchai Moontri put it. It’s the Priestly thing to do. As the Master, so the disciple. We can go ahead and be a bit triumphalistic about this!

Too bad Pornchai can’t see that video. I’m sure he would rejoice to see Freedom Incarnate being praised!

Again: Those who live in solidarity with those experiencing Jesus’ Holy Thursday Night imprisonment, especially the actual prisoners themselves, are, I believe, more capable than others of rejoicing in the love of the risen Lord Jesus, and together they bring many to the Lord. Jesus is with us, within us. When was Jesus in prison? Today’s the day, and you are with Him.

P.S. Are not true victims of abuse, prisoners of their horrific circumstances, until they come to know the healing Jesus can and does provide (having the right to do this because of His own imprisonment)? Ave Maria Press has just published Dawn Eden’s new book — My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds With the Help of the Saints. Dawn’s been a good friend for years. Her book is unique in the history of the abuse crisis. It’s the first to have the aim of healing wounds by way of the intercession and example of numerous saints. She’s just now published a guest-post over on Holy Souls Hermitage about Pornchai’s patron saint, Maximillian Kolbe. There are links for the book are also over there. Pornchai get’s his copy tomorrow (3 May 2012 – when the mail call gets it to him I don’t know!). This is a must read for everyone who wants to see the abuse crisis come full circle, with all of us, finally, looking to Jesus in the Eucharist.


About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE


  1. Dear Father Gordon,Know at Adoration tonigth at st Charles.Borrormeo, that and mass I will pray for you and companions plus the priesthood,nuns laity and humanity ,IHS.

  2. Mother M.L says:

    Father, thank you for your defense of the defenseless. As your spiritual mothers who have known you for years and your fidelity to the Lord and the Pope we have seen time and again your fearlessness in exposing the truth because Jesus is the Truth. You strive to stand with the marginalized and you suffer the cost of doing so. This is what shepherd of God‘s people should be. They look constantly to the Crucified Christ for graces and strength to continue the battle to win souls to the Lord.
    As one of your holy, wise spiritual mother put it – we need countless Fr George. She is right! As you always say the sufferings of this life is nothing compare to the joy that awaits us in heaven. You know we are praying much for you and the good work you are doing. Action speak louder than words.
    So keep on the good fight!
    We pray for you ,Father MacRae daily in our Eucharistic Adoration for your coming up court case. May God grant you freedom and exoneration from your wrong imprisonment. You have been to your fellow prisoners and others another Christ. May God bless your ministry in prison with many more souls for heaven like the great Pornchai.

    • Tirto says:

      Where do I start? I watched the video twice, and both times the tears were rolling. I think the big lessons here are that the talented may not be pretty or don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s never too late to go after your passions and dreams. She is an inspiration to us all and I was honored to hear her sing!!!

  3. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Fr George!
    Coincidentally I am now reading the Dolorous Passion and am in awe of it. What an awesome God we have!
    I will also get Dawn’s book.
    As long as we sin we will always be in prison but it is a prison of our own choosing. We also have the means to be set free but how often do we avail ourselves of this,the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Or even to daily ask for forgiveness?
    Thank you for your wonderful post! No matter what nothing is impossible with God! You will be added to my daily prayers at Mass. God bless you! Jeannie

  4. Hello Theresa! Here are some brief, sporadic notes: here and here and here and here, among others you might be able to find. I’m no expert, but I get the impression that he did take some few notes in German, but would be frustrated. He elaborated these briefly afterwards, abandoned them, and then expanded them much, much later.

    The Congregation for Saints might be able to provide more detailed information.

    The point here, which I’m sure Clemens understood well, is her exasperation with her own sinfulness before the tender mercies of Jesus, brutally imprisoned and horrifically tortured, and then her childlike humble thanksgiving for Jesus’ goodness and kindness. That’s all. Jesus is just so good to all of us.

  5. Theresa says:

    Great Post, but you wrote “… dictated by Anna Katharina to Clemens Brentano, whose secretarial skills seem to have left something to be desired. ” I don’t understand what you mean by that. Clemens Brentano was not able to write down anything at Anne Catherine Emmerich’s bedside, not even notes, all was written from memory, whichI believe in itself is a gift from God!!!
    Can you please explain?

  6. @ Ryan A. MacDonald: LOL!

    You are so discourteous!

    I’m picturing the SNAPers and others of their ilk who are reading your comment while sipping on the coffee that was clearly needed to read my article. I’m picturing them heaving forth a tsunami of ungracious comments spluttered through that coffee now magnificently gushing through their noses, choking, as they are, on your words about my being the Catholic Church’s voice of reason and justice.

    How ill-mannered of you to cause such mayhem!

    Just to say it: if I am in any way reasonable, or if I in any way desire justice for my brother priest, know that this is common to everyone who, by the grace of our Lord, has lived fidelity in the obedience of faith, even if just for a moment, amidst even just a small bit of adversity or suffering.

    So, if my voice is heard at all, it is because, by the grace of our Lord, it finds itself united to the mighty voice of the entire Mystical Body of Christ, whose voice is one… one of truth, one of justice, one of mercy, one of goodness and kindness, one with so many of the other readers of TSW.

  7. After reading this great article, I spent some time at Father Byers’ website, Holy Souls Hermitage. As a Catholic writer who has written extensively about the case of Father Gordon J. MacRae, I am much moved by the courage and fraternal compassion that Father Byers has shown to this wrongly imprisoned priest. From where I stand, Father George David Byers is the Catholic Church’s voice of reason and justice.

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for your article Fr.Byers.
    I wrote to Fr.MacRae about St Faustina’s revelations of the Mother of God, Mother of priests. She will help to free Fr.MacRae.
    All of us could make a novena to Our Lady Undoer of knots.
    This is a most powerful novena and if all who support Fr MacRae will make it on his behalf,we will see the power of intercession.You all can find it online. Let us all begin now.

    Elizabeth Rodgers .

  9. Sarah says:

    Thank you, Fr. Byers, for writing this week’s post. I’ve read it through a number of times, and it wounds one’s heart most painfully to accept that the Most High God loves us thus.
    Rejoice in the glory of our resurrected Lord!

    May our good God bring abundant fruit from your offering of self and your priestly ministry.

  10. Barbara Maclellan says:

    Dear Father, I pray every day for you and Pornchai mostly at Adoration. Barbara Cape Breton Keep praying for my family please.

  11. Barbara Maclellan says:

    I Pray for you and Pornchai every day to Padro Pio and often at Adoration that you will both be out soon. Barbara from Cape Breton

  12. Dear Fr Gordan, I will continue to remember you in my prayers.IHS.

  13. Liz F. says:

    Fr. George, this post was so inspirational! I really enjoyed it and will have to read it over again as there were many layers to uncover and much to think about. I’m glad you were this week’s guest host!

    Many prayers this week for you, Fr. George, and also to Fr. Gordon, Pornchai, Skooter and everyone else! God bless you all!

  14. Felipe says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post, Father George. I have so much spiritual growing to do!

  15. Karin says:

    Excellent post, Fr. George. I recently came upon your blog at Holy Souls and am glad you agreed to guest post here. There is so much food for thought and meditation here. True Christ was in prison and still is in those souls who are united to Him in their own sufferings and imprisonment. Fr. Gordon is definitely an example of this. I liked how you remind us that we can not be in solidarity with Jesus in this without singing the Easter praises.
    This is definitely a post to re-read slowly and prayerfully. Thanks and God bless.

  16. Fr. Gordon MacRae says:

    I can’t thank Fr. George enough for stepping in for me on These Stone Walls this week. this moving post is a great reminder of the Gospel message to reflect Christ in this world, especially to those deprived of freedom. There are many forms of such deprivation. I am especially glad for this mention of Dawn Eden’s new book, I have just read a glowing review of it in Inside The Vatican magazine. I look forward to reading it, and so does our friend Pornchai. With blessings to you all from the chaos of a cell undergoing spring cleaning, Father Gordon.

Speak Your Mind