Padre Pio and Maximilian Kolbe, the Patron Saints behind These Stone Walls, have an obscure thread of connection that magnifies witness, sacrifice, and fatherhood.
There was an eerie sense about us as Pornchai Maximilian Moontri and I walked around the concrete prison yard at 0500 on September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary. There was not yet any sign of the dawn, nor was there any moon in the sky. If there were stars, we were blinded to them by the blazing prison lights reflected from the high walls that surrounded us. I asked Pornchai to take a long last look at these walls, for he was about to enter the final stretch of his long road to freedom.
Just then, a sliver of bright light emerged above the building where we have lived in a 60-square-foot cell for the last three of our years in prison – 28 for Pornchai and 26 for me. We stood still to watch as the bright half-moon arose above all the walls. I told Pornchai that he will gaze upon the same moon in Thailand that I will see from this very spot. There was a long silence as he considered this, and then it was followed by tears. I had been putting a brave face on things up to this point, but I could no longer contain it.
It is difficult for men to talk and sob at the same time. I do not suggest that women cry more than men. Perhaps men do not cry enough. It is just that there was so much to say, and so I choked back the tears until another time. If you have been reading These Stone Walls for any length of time, then you understand what was transpiring that morning. It was expressed best by Pornchai himself in a recent guest post, “Hope and Prayers for My Friend Left Behind.”
Soon after, we had to end that walk, after fourteen years sharing and building faith, conversion and redemption in a tiny prison cell, Pornchai was taken away and we will never see each other again in this life.
Backing up a little, it was Pornchai who brought up the most urgent and necessary part of our conversation that morning. It goes back to one of the first conversations we ever had about Pornchai’s faith experience. It was back in 2006 just before we were moved into the same cell. He described this in his post above. He walked into my cell, saw an image of St. Maximilian Kolbe on the mirror, and asked, “Is this you?” He described that as one of the most important questions of his life.
Fourteen years later, as we walked in the pre-dawn light of a half moon, he said through tears, “Now I have the answer. You have saved me, but no one is saving you.” We talked a lot about our patron saint, of the mystery of how he came into our lives, and of what his witness means for us. Maximilian went to prison because he was writing the truth. I went to prison on trumped up charges, and have been writing the truth ever since. I told Pornchai that he is a very important and powerful part of that truth. I said that no matter what happens to me now, “you are a living witness to the truth that no past is lived at the expense of the present, that no wounds can
prevent a soul in search of God from emerging above prison walls.”
THE WOUNDS OF PADRE PIO
At this writing, Pornchai is now in a tomb of solitary confinement, with no ability to communicate with the outside world. I can support him only with my prayers, but this should only last a few days. By the time you are reading this, he will have already emerged from that to enter another purgatory: ICE detention awaiting deportation. This is probably the most disorganized, haphazard, inhumane and one-size-fits-all thing that the American government bureaucracy does. But we have a team of advocates working to make this stay as brief as possible. They are in touch with me every day.
The Thai consulate will – hopefully soon – arrange a repatriation flight for Pornchai to return to his native land after a 36-year absence. Under ICE rules, he is allowed to have nothing but the clothes he is wearing. We had the foresight to pack a box of his treasured few possessions – a handmade rosary sent to him by TSW, reader Kathleen Riney, a Saint Maximilian medal, some photographs, and a set of Divine Mercy books by Father Michael Gaitley and others. These include Loved, Lost, Found by Felix Carroll which features a chapter about Pornchai’s life. The box is on its way to Thailand and may arrive ahead of him.
When Pornchai himself arrives in Bangkok, he will have a final 14-day stay in solitary confinement, but it will not be in a cell. The Thai government requires a 14-day quarantine period in a Bangkok hotel. Pornchai will not be allowed to leave his hotel room for the 14 days, but it will be unlike all previous experiences of solitary confinement.
- [Editor’s note: You can see the solitary confinement unit that held Pornchai decades ago at wgbh.org/frontline/solitarynation. Pornchai knows many of the solitary confinement prisoners in this documentary about his first prison in Maine. If you haven’t seen this, you can’t begin to know what Pornchai has been through. It’s traumatic just to watch it. It’s the video right at the top of that link.]
One of our friends in Thailand will drop off a Samsung smart phone for Pornchai’s use so he and I can communicate. After 28 years in prison, he has never seen a smart phone. His first assignment is to learn how to answer the phone.
His second assignment will be to learn how to use the phone to read the post that you are reading right now. I want him to see what followed our painful discussion on the morning he left in tears – and left me in tears as well. I want him to ponder the mystery of the other patron saint who insinuated himself behind These Stone Walls with us. I want him to ponder the graces imparted to us by Saint Padre Pio who bore the wounds of Christ for fifty years.
I have been aware of Padre Pio for most of my life. As the young Capuchin studying (aka, misled by) pop psychology in the 1970s, a story I told in “Prison Journal: A Midsummer Night’s Midlife Crisis,” I am ashamed to write that I once denounced Padre Pio’s wounds as psychosomatic. I hope he forgives me for my ignorance back when I knew everything. I knew a lot about Padre Pio back then, but I did not know Padre Pio. Now I do. Pornchai knows him as well. He came to us behind These Stone Walls in a personal and powerful way.
I had already been in prison on false witness for four years back in 1998. I had, for all of those years, been living in a horrible situation with eight men in each prison cell designed for only four. To “honor” Catholics’ reverence for Padre Pio then – six years before he was canonized by Saint John Paul II in 2002 – The New York Times ran an article alleging that Padre Pio was the subject of twelve Vatican investigations in his lifetime. The unjust and inflammatory article alleged that “Padre Pio had sex with female penitents twice a week.”
This was the first inkling I ever had that Padre Pio suffered more than the visible wounds of Christ. He also suffered wounds upon his name, his integrity, his priesthood. Here we were, thirty years to the day since his death, and the “Scandal Sheet of Record” was still repeating an unfounded story for the sole purpose of deflating the faith of Catholics who reverenced him. It resonated with me in a most personal way.
Seven years passed. In April, 2005, a newspaper of integrity, The Wall Street Journal, published a two-part account of false witness, wrongful prosecution and public hysteria entitled, “A Priest’s Story” by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Dorothy Rabinowitz. The article was read all over the world. As a result of it, Bill Donohue at the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights asked me to submit an article about my own awareness of false witness. My article was published in the November 2005 issue of Catalyst under the title, “Sex Abuse and Signs of Fraud.”
I was surprised to see that I shared the cover of that issue of Catalyst with a story about how Padre Pio was similarly defamed throughout his life and even after death. None of it was ever substantiated nor was it supported by evidence in any form. On the contrary, many witnesses had testified in Vatican investigations that the detractors were themselves discredited beyond any doubt. That did not stop The New York Times from slander.
THE ECHOES OF A SPECIAL BLESSING
Among the readers of the WSJ series on my trial’s perversion of justice was Pierre Matthews, a Belgian with dual American citizenship who at the time was living in Chicago. The articles were his first realization – as they were for many – that the whole truth about the nature of Catholic scandal had not been told by the mainstream media. Pierre wrote to me. Months later, on a return trip from Belgium, he diverted his flight itinerary for a stop in Boston from where he drove up to Concord, NH to visit me in prison.
Later in 2005, Pornchai Moontri – who had spent the previous seven years in solitary confinement in Maine – was transferred to the Concord, NH prison where we met. In 2006 we became friends. In 2007 we became roommates. In 2010, on Divine Mercy Sunday, Pornchai renounced his troubled past to become Catholic. Later, in September 2010, I wrote “Saints Alive! Padre Pio and the Stigmata: Sanctity on Trial.”
That post told an amazing story. In an earlier visit with Pierre Matthews, I told him about Pornchai, about how our long and winding roads converged, and about Pornchai’s decision to renounce his past and become Catholic. Pierre told me a remarkable story. He said that when he was growing up in Belgium, his father sent him to a boarding school. In the 1950s, at just about the time I was born, Pierre’s school sponsored a trip to Italy. Pierre’s father wrote to him saying that his trip will take him near a place called San Giovanni Rotondo where there is a very famous priest and mystic who bears the wounds of Christ.
Pierre’s father instructed his skeptical 16-year-old son to take a train to San Giovanni Rotondo and ask to see Padre Pio. Being 16, Pierre did not want to go. But his father was insistent so Pierre read his Father’s account of Padre Pio’s mystical fame that was at the time being suppressed by the Church, but rising up from the sensus fidelium – the sense of the faithful.
When Pierre Matthews learned that Pornchai was to become Catholic, he sent me a registered letter asking – no, insisting – that he be permitted to become Pornchai’s Godfather. Pierre asked me to submit a special request to the prison warden asking approval for Pierre to fly over from Belgium to visit both me and Pornchai. In all the years that I had been here, such a thing was never allowed. No visitor can visit two prisoners at the same time. So I submitted the request with the intent of sending the denial back to Pierre. To my shock, the request came back with a single word: “approved.”
During the special visit, Pierre told us that he indeed took a train to San Giovanni Rotondo at age 16 over a half century earlier. He said he rang the monastery doorbell and asked a friar if he could see Padre Pio. “Impossible” came the curt reply. Pierre explained that his father had sent him from Belgium so the friar invited him inside to be given a prayer card to show his father that he was there. When he stepped inside to be given the card, a strange man in a Capuchin habit, with hands heavily bandaged, was just then walking down the stairs. His eyes were fixed upon Pierre, Padre Pio approached Pierre, placed his bandaged hands upon his head, and blessed him.
Visiting us 55 years later, Pierre said that he knows this blessing was meant for us. He spoke of the long, winding journey from faith that led to his learning about me, then about Pornchai, and then, when These Stone Walls began in 2009, it was what drew Pierre back to faith. It was then, in 2010, that I added Saint Padre Pio as one of the Patron Saints of These Stone Walls Through Pornchai’s Godfather, Padre Pio shared his wounds with us and became a witness for the defense against our own wounds. It was Pierre who first noted that I was condemned to prison on September 23, 1994, the Feast of Saint Padre Pio.
Among the many letters of Padre Pio to the thousands of pilgrims and penitents who wrote to him, was one dated in the year before his death on September 23, 1968. In that letter, Padre Pio advised a suffering soul to enroll in the Knights at the Foot of the Cross, a spiritual mission founded by Father Maximilian Kolbe for the offering of life’s wounds as a share in the suffering of Christ. I was amazed to read that Padre Pio had such an awareness of our other patron saint two decades before St. Maximilian was canonized. Pornchai and I are both members of the Militia Immaculata and the Knights at the Foot of the Cross.
Our beloved friend Pierre, Pornchai’s Godfather, passed away in Belgium on July 7 this year. Pornchai and I were blessed to be able to talk with him by telephone in the weeks before his death. He never took redemption for granted, but I know with the certainty of faith that he and Padre Pio have renewed their bond.
So Pornchai, my son, if you are reading this then you must know that there is much more to our life’s wounds than the prison walls that surrounded us and surround me still. To be free of them is not just a matter of the body, but of the heart and soul. So be free. Be free enough to convey to others the great gifts imparted to us by these patron saints. You will no longer have a guest post at These Stone Walls. You will now be a partner in mission, writing from Divine Mercy Thailand about how God is inspiring hearts and souls through the transfiguration of your wounds.
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Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Thank you, dear readers, for sharing in this painful but remarkable faith journey. Please, pray for us as we do for you. You may also like these related posts from TSW: