Antonio says his own “holy family” has given him the strength to keep up his spirits. Photo by Kacper Lawinski/Pixabay

Home for Christmas: A story of pain, family and power of faith

  • December 19, 2020

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
and presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

By Christmas Eve the Advent wreath is aglow with the candles of love, hope, joy and peace, and we await the lighting of the White Candle which signifies the coming of Jesus into our world and into our lives. We pray again that this presence will become a reality which we can sense and touch, but for many it becomes an elusive dream that vanishes when they awaken from their restless sleep.

I was talking with my friend Antonio who has seen his share of restless nights, longing to be home for Christmas with his family and friends. But for him the reality was for many years a prison cell surrounded by the constant gaze of prison guards who sang no angelic chorus of joy to the world.

“There had been better days,” he told me. “Days when my two sisters and I woke up on Christmas morning surrounded by a close-knit family filled with devotion to the Virgin Mary and to our Catholic faith. We lived in Miami at the time, our parents having moved from my birthplace of Vancouver when they found the climate too severe for their Colombian heritage. Christmas was always about family: the Holy Family and our extended family, they were our most important treasures.”

Graduating from the University of Miami, and always a self-starter, he moved from Miami and after a few years settled down in Mexico with a wife and two children. Life was good until some poor decisions brought his downfall. He was arrested and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in the U.S. for narcotics offences. This sentence was subsequently commuted to 14 years since there had been no immediate violence associated with the offence. He lost not only his freedom, but also his wife, who divorced him and took the five- and 13-year-old children with her.

“I was moved a few times from one prison to the next, but I always kept myself busy. I taught courses to the other inmates who wanted to attain their high school equivalence diploma. I even gave courses on parenting, because it is surprising how many people in prison have not received fundamental parenting skills, and so treat their children like they were treated growing up. What was especially close to my heart was the interaction I had with the priests who came in to celebrate the Eucharist.

"I never gave up on my rosary each day. Through thick and thin, this was my lifeline to Jesus through Mary."

“When I was in Loretto, Penn., Franciscans came in from the local university and I was the inside contact. I never gave up on my rosary each day. Through thick and thin, this was my lifeline to Jesus through Mary. Yes, I received abuse and some of the other inmates made fun of me, but I was not really bothered. I remember in one prison I was on the bottom bunk praying my rosary and the man on the top bunk was a Satanist praying to Satan. I could imagine Mary trampling Satan under her foot as is shown in the statue of Our Lady of Grace. I used to say my rosary in English, French and Spanish, and told people I was not sure what language Mary spoke, so I was not taking any chances.

“I did have a strange experience in prison that I think has changed my life. For nine years I had frequent falls and none of the doctors could figure it out. I was told it was anxiety, but it did not feel like that to me, and a few of the times my heart would stop for nine seconds before I was revived. Finally, a doctor examined me and told me I was lucky to be alive. I had three blocked arteries and if I had been unconscious for 12 seconds there would have been no return. I thought to myself that God has saved me for a reason, and I am now motivated to fulfill that reason by working for others.”

I asked Antonio what gave him hope when he was inside, and his answer was immediate. “It was my faith and my family. I kept in touch with my children when I was inside and I am proud to say that my son has graduated as a medical doctor, and my daughter is in med school. All of my extended family have stuck by me and none gave up on me. It is my holy family that made me strong and gave me hope. Family is everything to me.”

He completed his sentence in August of this year, and as a Canadian citizen was deported to Toronto. There is a saying on the streets that to survive you need a home, a job, and a friend. The first of these is difficult because a lot of landlords will not take people with a criminal record, and so they are forced to take low-rental accommodation which often from my experience is barely suitable for human habitation.

However, he was fortunate in that he came in contact with “Restorative Justice Housing Ontario” which was established in 2019 to assist former prisoners by providing safe, affordable housing, and which is partially funded by Friends of Dismas.

I say he was fortunate, but I think Antonio would say that Mother Mary does actually speak English, French or Spanish. Safe in affordable housing, the friendship has also been provided by the Friends of Dismas, which supports those who have been touched by crime. Deacon Paul Bar has become a friend who walks with him on his journey of re-integration.

"It is my holy family that made me strong and gave me hope. Family is everything to me."

Finally, this week Antonio has found a job, which will assist him to be financially independent and to be connected with the business community of Toronto.

With such turmoil in his life, he would be forgiven for becoming disillusioned. However, he says, “I am still the same person I have always been. Yes, I have made some poor decisions in my life, but these decisions do not define me. I am still the same person I have always been, someone who looks for the good in life.

“I have a lot to thank God for: I could have died, I have successful children, I have a supportive family and faith. I still have dreams of starting a foundation, perhaps with my daughter and son, which helps the most vulnerable to escape poverty, addiction and the stigma of imprisonment.”

“But do you know what kills me? This is the 15th Christmas I have not seen my children, and the loneliness of having the family elsewhere is difficult. I am used to being with friends, and that is what I love and brings me to life. Being in the midst of the virus, in a new city, makes it difficult to reach out and make friends.”

The message of Christmas to the world is that of Immanuel, God is with us. It is being lived out in the life of Antonio who by his faith and actions witnesses to that truth and can say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.”

(Kinghorn is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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