A letter John Paul II sent in 1991 to a prisoner in Lima, Peru increased the inmate’s faith and inspired him “to continue his evangelization efforts while incarcerated.
Carlos Turrin Villanueva spent 10 years behind bars for the crime of terrorism at the Castro Castro Prison in Lima, Peru.
Turrin, who was released in 1999, told CNA that months before receiving the papal letter, he had written to John Paul II without expecting a response. “He was so busy and received so many letters that I never thought he would take notice of a prisoner,” Turrin said.
In his message, the Pope thanked Turrin for writing to him and offered his prayers that “through the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, the Lord will strengthen you in the faith and grant you continual peace and Christian prosperity.” He also bestowed an apostolic blessing on Turrin and his loved ones.
Turrin recalled the difficulties of living the Christian life and evangelizing inside the prison. At that time, “around 1989-90, the only ones who could control and manage our block in the prison was the Shining Path, and we were the enemy.”
The Shining Path was a terrorist organization responsible for numerous anti-government attacks throughout the 1980s and 90s.
“The leaders of our small Christian communities were the targets of death threats, psychological threats, physical assaults and abuse. Almost all of us were physically and psychologically abused, but that was the cost of our conversion, and we accepted it,” he said.
The terrorist group’s displeasure with Turrin’s prison ministry grew worse as the number of members in his Christian community increased from 15 to 100.
“A time came in which prisoners were evangelizing prisoners; we assumed the leadership because at that time it was almost impossible for priests and religious to visit. Eventually, 12 Christian communities were established, one in each prison block. Each year many prisoners consecrated themselves to the Virgin Mary. We even were able organize festivals for life and peace, activities that were powerful and unheard of at that time, when we were living under a harsh regime,” he said.
“However, God allowed all of these events to take place – as if we were free – with prizes, contests, etc.,” Turrin said.
He said that seeing the beatification of John Paul II “was a profound experience, because deep inside I thought about how this Pope, who was kind enough to write me a letter, is today beatified.”
“I read his works in prison, and we always said among ourselves that he was a saint,” Turrin recalled.
The former inmate has continued his prison ministry at three facilities in Lima.