The prison guard weighed the small plastic bottle in the palm of her hand. “It’s not grape juice?”
She held the three ounces of rose-colored liquid up to the light.
“Not permitted,” she said.
I was taken aback.
“Ma’am, Catholics are required to use real wine for Mass. I’ve been to this unit numerous times and never encountered this problem.”
“It’s only three ounces.”
She took the bottle to her desk and summoned three other officers. They conferred and all agreed that wine was not permitted inside the cell block. I made an appeal based on sacramental theology. When it failed, I appealed for recourse to the warden. Thirty-minutes later, I was granted permission to carry the wine into the facility.
“I apologize for the inconvenience,” said the warden as I left his office. I shook his hand. “Thanks for not arresting me.”
I made the comment in jest but, inwardly, I was contemplating the story of Cardinal Nguyen Van Thaun who served a thirteen-year sentence in a Viet Cong prison, nine of which were spent in solitary confinement.
In his book, “Five Loaves and Two Fish,” the cardinal describes a rare occasion when he clandestinely offered the Eucharist in the presence of a few other Catholic inmates. He managed to do so with three drops of smuggled wine in the palm of his hand.
I shared his story with the prisoners the day that I was detained at the guard house. I compared the three ounces of consecrated Wine in our chalice to the three drops of Christ’s Blood in the palm of Cardinal Van Thuan.
I cannot speak for each of the prisoners, yet the silence that fell upon the room and the reverent expressions on their faces, indicated a profound mystical event was taking place.
For this unworthy priest, presiding at a make-shift altar, it seemed as though winged seraphim were suddenly guarding the door and, from the midst of a ragtag assembly in jailhouse attire, an army of white-robe martyrs was raising a hymn of endless praise.
The Sacrifice of Calvary, whether offered in resplendent cathedrals or concrete cell blocks, joins us—spiritual prisoners that we are—to the chains of St Peter, the agony of St. Agatha, the martyrdom of St. Maximilian and to countless other saints who, in the darkness of dungeons, did not yield to despair but strained to touch the raw redness of Christ’s Blood.