One Priest’s Spiritual Work of Mercy

Jesuit Father William Watson Seeks to Bring a New Book of Ignatian Spirituality Into Prisons

(photo: Main photo, Pixabay)

St. Ignatius of Loyola became familiar with prison life while he was held for months in several different prisons during the Spanish Inquisition. Incarceration didn’t prevent him from explaining the Christian faith and his newly developed Spiritual Exercises to fellow inmates and visitors.

The author of a new book is also hoping to bring into prisons Ignatius’ teachings, in the form of an in-depth program of prayer, self-examination and discernment that fosters healing and conversion.

In Forty Weeks: Letters From Prison, Jesuit Father William Watson offers his accessible version of Ignatian spirituality together with letters chronicling an incarcerated man’s journey through it.

The founder of the Seattle-based Sacred Story Institute discusses guiding Richard “Ritchie Roman” (not his real name) through the program, what inspired him to write the book and how he is working to get it into the hands of more incarcerated people.

Some of Father Watson’s comments in this interview were condensed and edited.


What is the “40 Weeks” program?

St. Ignatius proposed two disciplines the Jesuits use with laity, and 90% of our pastoral work was promoting Ignatius’ examination of conscience in conjunction with frequent confession.

My 40-week program is my version of creating something that has the power of a 30-day retreat or a 19th annotation [shorter] version of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises for individuals and faith communities, sometimes called the “spiritual exercises of everyday life” or seal programs.

The first section involves pulling together all the different dimensions of one’s life story and leads up to a whole life confession. The second part is learning the five moments of the Ignatian examen of conscience. It’s a gradual process so they kind of learn intuitively the five steps of the Ignatian examination.

In the third part, participants learn rules for the discernment of spirits. The only way St. Ignatius was able to navigate the temptations and trials of his early conversion was by being given insights by God — by Christ — on how to deal with this problem or temptation. Laypeople who are praying in their daily lives absolutely need to understand the basics of spiritual discernment if their conversion is going to deepen over the course of their lives.


How did you meet Ritchie Roman and arrange to guide him through the program by correspondence?

Three years ago this August, we got a letter at the institute [from a prisoner]. I was moved by the writer’s sincerity, but the last thing I felt I had time for was becoming a prison pen pal. So instead of just working with him one-on-one, I thought, “Let’s do something that will help people like him.” I wrote back and said, “Ritchie, if you send me your questions and queries each month for each of the four weeks of that month, I will give you spiritual guidance on your questions if you give me permission to put our correspondence in a version of ‘40 Weeks’ for the incarcerated.” He was very excited about that. It gave him a spiritual motivation and hope that somehow the mess of his life would be able to be redeemed and be of benefit not just for him but for other people.


Why did you write this book?

I had a plan when I started the institute to build a platform of the 40 Weeks program, but then … at a certain time in the [Sacred Story] Institute’s maturation process to create specific targeted programs for different types of people who needed special help.

It’s the same 40-week program. All I did for the Letters From Prison was include the initial correspondence [about the connection with Roman] up front to give people the background story. Also, at the end of each week of the exercises, which are the same as in the first 40-week version, are the letters back and forth between Roman and me.


Is Letters From Prison mainly for those who are incarcerated?

Some non-incarcerated Catholics have decided to buy this version of Letters From Prison because they think they could benefit from the back-and-forth between myself and the prisoner. I think other people would be very drawn to it. Another friend who I’ll be collaborating with read it, and he told me how emotionally overcome he was by the letters, so I know it’s going to touch many people’s hearts.


For all the challenges of being in prison, how was Roman able to enter into this program?

What he did was he realized that Christ can be found anywhere. He said, “It’s a very ugly world here.” I talk in a part of the book about, in the microcultures of sin, that we can all attach ourselves to [sins], and every single one of them is present in prison. But he has found a few people of like-minded heart that he can go to, and he’s also cultivated an interior quiet that he can reach even in the worst situations. He prays the Rosary, and always prays the Sorrowful Mysteries, because they touch him the most. This should give everyone hope that, no matter their circumstances, they can always find Christ. If Ritchie can find him in a federal penitentiary, we can find him anywhere.


Did he especially relate to any aspects of St. Ignatius’ story or teaching?

The story of St. Ignatius gave him incredible hope, in terms of Ignatius’ generally messed up life in his first 30 years. That, I find, gives many people hope. Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. People need to realize that holiness is letting God work with the mess in your life and what’s broken. They think they have to be holy in order for Jesus to approach them. Jesus comes to the sinners, the ones who need to be saved.


Were there any impactful moments for you during your correspondence with Roman?

I couldn’t wait to get his letters. Every letter that I read moved me deeply, in terms of his sincerity, vulnerability and his willingness to engage the work that the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ were doing inside of him. He was faithful to the process throughout the entire journey. I got a chill through me at the end when I was doing the very last letter, because I realized that the first week [and that week] were both on All Saints’ Day. I thought, “This is a sign that anybody can be a saint.”


Were there any turning points in Roman’s experience?

Yes, in the first paragraph of Roman’s last letter:

“I am locked up in a federal penitentiary. I have been for quite a while now. There’s not much good around here. Negativity is contagious. This week’s Affirmation is simple yet important to me. ‘It is never too late to open my heart to Christ and live my life as Sacred Story.’ Not only am I just now doing this in my 50s — finally — but I also must re-commit daily, sometimes more often.”

That’s somebody who has truly engaged and given his life over to Christ, who knows it’s going to be for the rest of his life and [that] even in prison he can find Christ.

The last paragraph is also very moving for me:

“The awareness that I can live my Sacred Story under any circumstances is heartening. God’s grace is wonderful. It’s not always going to be easy, to say the least. It’s a tough world. Diligence, awareness, constant conscious contact with my Lord and Savior, and the disciplines I have learned and continue to practice are the keys.”


I couldn’t wait to respond back to him to give him encouragement and hope. His letters were handwritten on lined paper, and I did almost nothing except for spelling here and there. He didn’t think he wrote well, but his writing, I thought, was just beautiful.


Is there anything non-incarcerated Catholics can take away Roman’s experience with the “40 Weeks” program?

Ignatius told the first Jesuits, “Work with the people who know they need help. They will be the ones who will be open to what you have to give.” It’s people letting themselves realize that they need help.  Everyone does need help. Jesus shows that in the Scriptures, in terms of people who are self-righteous who don’t think they need help. Then there are the publicans and sinners and prostitutes who know that their lives are messed up and who seem to be open to his work of mercy and redemption. It’s knowing that you need help, and being willing to admit it, that is the beginning of the Christian life.


How are you making this program available to those who are in prison?

We have to find networks of prison chaplains who can get the book inside to prisoners. We’re working on that process.

It would be my highest hope to be able to have some of the correspondence back and forth with people who are doing this in the institute so that I can publish that and make that a hopeful resource for the people.

We’re trying to find the best avenue to use this resource for the people who can benefit by it who are behind bars and then link them with people who could be a spiritual resource for them who are in the outside world. The shape of that is still amorphous. It’s probably going to take about a year for us to figure out the best avenue to take advantage of this and to honor the memory of Deacon Pat and to use this resource. He kind of got rolling by giving a copy of the book to Ritchie. [Deacon Patrick Logsdon, of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, and founder of a ministry for former prisoners, initially gave Roman a copy of Forty Weeks. He was murdered last year by a former prisoner participating in his ministry.]


Have you had contact with Roman since the book was published?

Our letters continue. He calls me about once or twice a month, but I can’t call him. The new place he’s in now has the capacity for email. I will eventually publish just the letters and the follow-up correspondence, since the program ended in a separate book. He is scheduled to get out in 2021. He may get out earlier because there’s been a prison-reform program under President Trump that is moving things forward and trying to help make former inmates productive members of society.


Do you know what he plans to do when he’s released?

I think that he might feel inspired to see if he could become a Catholic deacon and help people in prison. I think he feels he’s got a ministry now.


Are you working on other versions of “40 Weeks”?

I’ve already completed work on one for priests called 40 Weeks: A Journey of Healing and Transformation for Priests, a collaboration with [John Paul II Healing Center founder] Dr. Bob Schuchts, which will be released in October. We’re going to be doing a version of “40 Weeks” for wounded warriors, people with traumatic injuries. We decided to focus on that huge group hurt by war. Other versions include one just for men that’s in the infancy planning stages; also, one for people with sexual addictions and one for their spouses. What are included in each of the special editions are letters and reflections at the end of each week [that are specific to the version].

Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.