by Father Mike Stubbs
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while incarcerated there on April 16, 1963, after taking part in a civil rights demonstration.
In that letter, he argued that civil disobedience was necessary to overturn unjust laws. In fact, he maintained that it was a moral obligation.
Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoffer, a German Lutheran theologian, spent 18 months in prison before he was executed on April 9, 1945, for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. While in prison, he wrote letters that were smuggled out and published after his death — letters in which he expressed his theological reasons for opposing the Nazi regime. There is a long tradition of religious figures writing letters while incarcerated.
Someone locked up in jail often spends a lot of time waiting — waiting to face trial, waiting to complete a sentence, waiting to be released, waiting just to find out what will happen. That was the situation that St. Paul had to deal with toward the end of his life. It was the perfect time for writing letters.
Several of his letters that eventually ended up in the New Testament resulted from his period of imprisonment. While waiting in his cell, he would profit from his spare time by writing to various Christian communities. That explains the Letter to the Philippians, part of which constitutes Sunday’s second reading — Phil 1:20c-24, 27a.
While in prison, St. Paul realized that he might eventually be executed. Accordingly, he tried to decide which fate he would prefer: death, or release from prison. He saw pros and cons in both. Sunday’s reading reflects this inner struggle.
While in prison, St. Paul did not confine himself to writing. He also engaged in evangelizing others around him, the prison guards and fellow prisoners. His success in winning souls for Christ reminded him that he could certainly serve Christ while still alive. Imprisonment had not slowed him down:
“I want you to know, brothers, that my situation has turned out rather to advance the Gospel, so that my imprisonment has become well known in Christ throughout the whole praetorium and to all the rest, and so that the majority of the brothers, having taken encouragement in the Lord from my imprisonment, dare more than ever to proclaim the word fearlessly” (Phil. 1:12-14).
St. Paul could not decide which to prefer: to continue in this life with his work of evangelization, or to die and enjoy eternal life with Christ. In any case, it was not for him to decide. God would determine his fate, just as God will determine our fate. We place ourselves in his hands.