Q & A with Sr. Anne Lécu, serving inmates at a French prison

by Elisabeth Auvillain

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Sr. Anne Lécu joined the Dominican order after she finished her medical studies. She has been working as a doctor at Fleury-Mérogis, one of the biggest prisons in Europe, 10 miles south of Paris, for the past 20 years, first caring for male then for female inmates.

She also holds a doctorate in philosophy for her work on the effects of being jailed and has written five books dealing with issues such as shame, innocence and God's mercy. In a recent one, Tu as couvert ma honte ("You have covered my shame"), she explains, with examples from Scripture, how God pushes aside our bad deeds because he is not interested in our crimes; he does not want us to be destroyed by our shame but to turn toward him to be forgiven. God only wants to be in touch with the part of us made in his image, she writes.

"When detainees claim they are innocent, what they mean is that, even if they did something punishable, there is a part of them that is innocent," she said, adding that it is this part of our person that is made in God’s image, that nothing can destroy.

Lécu is also a part of a team of Dominicans who runs the website Retraite dans la Ville ("Retreat in the City"), which provides anyone who subscribes free weekly meditation and prayers, mainly during Advent and Lent. She is regularly invited to preach retreats for congregations and communities.

GSR: Sister Anne, you are working as a medical doctor in a jail, in Fleury-Mérogis. Did your experience as a doctor lead you to reflect and write about innocence or about the way God, as you say, "covers our shame"? Or did your interest for such themes prompt you to go and work with inmates?

Lécu: I came to work in a jail by chance: I was looking for a part-time job, and the opportunity to work as a doctor in a jail came up. But then I stayed.

Being in the world of prisoners made me think differently about questions related to justice. The Gospel tells the story of a trial, Jesus' trial. The judgment is more the judgment of Christ by men than a judgment of men by Christ.

Both my experiences with prisoners and with my life in a community of Dominican Sisters contributed to my reflection about trials, about the role of tears. Then I wrote about innocence and the very peculiar way God has to treat men's faults by covering them.

At the heart of this reflection, there is the figure of Jean-Joseph Lataste, a Dominican priest of the 19th century. Fr. Lataste is a very interesting character: He was preaching mercy to women jailed in Cadillac, a village near Bordeaux in the southwest of France. He went as far as to suggest to those of them who agreed to live their detention as if they were nuns, since they were leading a life of work and prayer in silence.

Following this intuition, some of these women decided to continue living a religious life after their liberation. Fr. Lataste then founded the order of the Dominican Sisters of Bethanie. In this congregation, women, whether they came from a good school or from the street, could live a religious life on equal footing and become Dominican nuns. His intuition took its source in the contemplation of Christ crucified next to guilty people, carrying the curse of sin to free us from sin.

You say in your book You Have Covered My Shame that a lot of inmates come to see you because they have skin issues. How do you explain it? Can you cure them?

I am not sure. It seems to me that the body takes the shape of what is happening to the person. The skin is the interface between inside and outside. It may be that the skin of a man or a woman who is behind bars suffers from being in prison. It is probably the sign of an existential suffering that has an effect on the whole body.

I do not send these people to see a psychiatrist. I prescribe creams and showers. If their skin improves, they get better, and their existence is better.

This is also true for pain. When you are in prison, you're hurting. Whatever problem you have, if you are in jail, the same problem hurts more. Sometimes I prescribe physiotherapy to help detainees get their bodies straight and, as a consequence, their lives. These people say they "fell into prison" as one can "fall ill."

Do you think you are a different physician since you are a nun? Do people know you are a nun, and do they ask you to pray for them?

I am certainly not different. Every one of us doctors does what he or she can do with what he has. To imagine we would be different because we are Christian seems to me to be very conceited!

Some detainees know I am a religious sister. Most of them could not care less. Some ask me to pray for them, but they probably ask other people, too. Recently, a woman inmate insulted me because I refused to prescribe her a drug that was not right for her condition. This kind of comment keeps me in reality, and it is a very good thing that this woman can enjoy the liberty of insulting me.

"Only God judges," you often say, adding that there is a part of innocence in every person. Still, a society needs rules to function properly and needs a judicial system. How should a criminal be sanctioned? You seem to stress the importance of reinsertion. How do you see it?

Of course, justice should be done! Society judges actions, not people, and gives penalties to people who acted against the law. The role of a judge is not to give satisfaction to victims but to offer to mediate between someone who is accused and his victim. Its role is to judge in such a way that there is no vengeance.

But you and I are not judges, and our role is not to judge people when justice has been done. This is what I mean when I say, "God is the only judge." Only God knows what there is deep in our hearts and knows how to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Reinsertion means above all to forbid oneself to judge someone who has already been tried. The fact is that when you were once in jail, it sticks with you. How do we organize our society to give a second or third chance to those of us who have once been sentenced? How do we behave with them in a way that makes clear to them that we know that judgment was passed on what they did, but not on who they are as people? Each one of us has to answer these questions.

Is working in prison a traditional mission for Dominicans? How important is a presence in these places?

As far as I know, all sorts of ways to be present in prison have been the most common type of apostolate practiced in the Dominican order, by brothers, sisters or laypeople altogether. If we take the example of Fr. Lataste, whom I mentioned earlier, his works were known by prisoners in Norfolk, Massachusetts: They founded a lay Dominican fraternity whose members are detainees as well as free people.

This might have something to do with our motto, "Veritas" ["Truth"]. Truth makes you free. In jail, the main question is: how to live free while being behind bars? A question we have to ask ourselves, too, since we claim to be free human beings. Are we really free? Are we really free to confront the truth with humility and to live on it with joy?

For Christians, truth is not accuracy. It has something to do with the truth of meeting someone, of creating a link with a person.

Fraternal correction, for example, is only possible if we like the person we want to make a comment to. I experience it in my life in the community. If I make a remark to a sister that I do not like enough, my reproach will be received as a judgment. If I am friends with her, she will be able to hear it. This is how we can exercise truth, which can only be made of gentleness and mercy.

[Elisabeth Auvillain is a freelance journalist based in Paris.]