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I had coasted through the Missouri prison system for seven years. The only admission of guilt to my crime was at sentencing as part of the plea agreement. Otherwise, I considered my crime to not be my fault. I blamed my victim, rationalized my wrongful actions, and minimized my horrible transgression. 

l was numb inside, just a hollow being. I did not care about anyone else, only my own reputation. Denial was a much easier way to hide my shame and regret. I was in a dark place and lost in a world with no hope.

I had grown up in a Catholic family and attended parochial schools until I reached the eighth grade. Once I started attending public schools, I began to distance myself from the church. Inside prison, I attended Catholic services out of familiarity and comfort. 

Our Sunday services are normally led by a deacon from an outside parish. A few times a year we get lucky and a priest leads the services. On December 12, 2017, the local diocese sponsored a Catholic banquet for us. It was a pivotal moment in my life, my spirituality, and my rehabilitation. 

The banquet was held in the prison’s visitation room. Tables were set up, outside guests arrived, and the sweet aroma of outside food filled the air. Most of the outside guests were volunteers from a local church who assist in our Sunday services. Two priests arrived. Just observing these men of the cloth on this side of the fence brought both fear and comfort. This is a medium-security prison and the men get complacent in gestures and speech. However, for some mysterious reason, nobody wants to slip up in front of a priest. We were on our best behavior.

Our food was blessed, and after ample conversation during the meal, the two priests set up areas on opposite sides of the room to offer confession. I had not been to confession in at least 25 years and did not look in the direction where the sacrament was being offered. 

If I were to venture over there, what sins should I confess? Certainly not the one that led me to prison. What would the priest think of me? I was physically trembling at the thought of sitting before the man representing God and confessing the mortal sin caused by my hand. It felt like the preemptive Judgment Day.

A staff member sitting next to me said, “Shon, Father Pardee has an empty seat over there. You should go”. 

Now, a staff member I respected had nudged me. I had a choice: maintain my prison mentality and continue eating or face the sinister past I denied for the past seven years? I took a deep breath, the kind of massive inhalation that fills the lungs and gives you added courage. I walked across the room taking each step with careful precision. It was like stepping into the ocean for the first time, unsure of what might greet you. 

I sat cautiously in the orange plastic chair before the padre. He smiled as I struggled for the words I once knew many years ago: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been over 20 years since my last confession.” 

Rather than surprise or condemnation, his face revealed nothing. I considered spouting out some common sins like foul language, lies, adultery, pornography, theft, and impure thoughts just to go through the motions. “Too easy,” I thought. “I can do this.” 

On the other hand, did I want to tell him about the big one? I decided to jump into the deep end of the pool of my sins. I’m not sure if it was due to fear or the impatience of wanting it over with. Or was it a divine push?

I spoke of my sin. It was the first time I spoke, without justification, minimizing, or blaming, a genuine confession of guilt to killing my wife. I watched Father Pardee’s face, his eyes, and his hands with the eyes of an eagle. I expected a look of disappointment, a grimace, or some uneasiness about sitting three feet from a murderer with no barrier between us. 

I only saw love on his face. I felt an unconditional love emitting from him. Up to that point in my life, I had never felt love like that: agape love. 

Father Pardee said a prayer and declared me absolved of my sin. I wept. In a prison visitation room, surrounded by inmates I would see in the general population the next day, the emotional levy that held back so much of my guilt and pain was now broken. 

I felt a rebirth as the dark spot on my soul was gone. My path in the prison system changed at that very moment. I will never forget the priest that brought spiritual relief into my life. 

Father Pardee passed away in 2019 from cancer. His death was announced at our Catholic banquet that December. I wrote this story to inspire other clergy and let them know the importance of the sacraments in the prison setting. I also wrote it as a living tribute to Father Pardee and the impact that he had on my life. Amen.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Shon Pernice is a contributing writer for PJP. He is a veteran and a Kansas City native who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a combat medic and came home with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He has been published in Veterans Voices, The Beat Within and Military Magazine. He is a contributing author to the book, "Helping Ourselves By Helping Others: An Incarcerated Men's Survival Guide." Shon was incarcerated in Missouri.