By Br. Steve Herro, O. Praem.
Washing of the Feet at St. Norbert Abbey, Holy Thursday 2017: Deacon Michael Brennan, O. Praem. (left) and Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.
My brother Jerome and I were traveling one day. Mind you, we don’t often digress onto theological discourse, but this time he said to me, “We say this at Mass, but what does ‘descended into hell’ really mean?”
Last month as part of the Norbertine Center for Spirituality’s annual Triduum Retreat at St. Norbert Abbey, Fr. Matthew Dougherty, O. Praem., delivered a Holy Saturday conference entitled, “Descended into Hell.” He brilliantly explained how different theologians and literary figures have addressed this concept through the centuries, but his explanation of Jesus visiting people who are so devoid of life and human interaction to free them from the from the imprisonment of isolation from love of God and others really struck a chord with me. In his presentation, Fr. Dougherty included a slide of a prisoner in solitary confinement. I immediately thought that a contemporary example of Jesus descending into hell would be visiting and freeing prisoners from solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement is real in Wisconsin prisons. Faith-based leaders from WISDOM (a Wisconsin network of faith-based organizations) and others from the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin have led concerned Wisconsinites in reforming Wisconsin prison practices that include the use of solitary confinement.
The article, “Wisconsin Inmates Report Despair, Little Counseling In Solitary Confinement That Can Stretch On For Years” (Wisconsin Public Radio, April 14, 2017), noted that there were 1,073 Wisconsin inmates in solitary confinement on Februrary 28, 2017. Confinement averages 22 hours a day for 15 continuous days. But Governor Scott Walker’s 2017-2019 Wisconsin state budget requests additional funds for mental health care and outside-of-cell programming and recreation for those in solitary confinement.
Jesus did not descend into hell to have parties with the rich, powerful, and popular. Pope Francis has made a habit of washing the feet of Roman prisoners. And wherever the pope goes, the media follow; the lives of those visited receive at least a fleeting moment of international attention.
Whether we advocate for prisoners in solitary confinement, visit saddened people in hospitals or nursing homes, or pray for an end to the confinement of political prisoners, we are “descending into hell” to bring the joy of the Good News of Christ to men and women separated or isolated from human love and interaction.
Where We Minister
As stated in the mission of St. Norbert Abbey, “We give ourselves in service to one another and to people in need, with special emphasis on service and advocacy for the poor. We commit ourselves to our traditional ministries, while being open to new apostolates.” Members of the Norbertine Community of St. Norbert Abbey minister at the Brown County Jail and at the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI), among other apostolates.