Walking the way of Jesus the captive: An Ethiopian prison perspective

Walking the way of Jesus the captive: An Ethiopian prison perspective Ethopian Portrait of Jesus
Fr Paddy Moran CSSp
To understand the passion of Christ is to understand the human journey, writes Fr Paddy Moran CSSp

As a missionary I had the great privilege to work for 11 years in Ethiopia. I spent a number of those years working with prisoners in Arba Minch prison. Arba Minch is a town 500 kilometres south west of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Recently reassigned to work in Ireland, I still have the opportunity to go back to Ethiopia and strengthen the friendships that I made there.

One of the works that I am particularly proud of is the establishment of an art project in the prison. On six separate occasions Irish painters have travelled to the prison to facilitate painting classes with male and female prisoners. The programme has evolved so that as we speak there are Ethiopian prisoners teaching their fellow prisoners how to paint in a purpose-built classroom.

Shortly we hope to have one of our artists leaving the prison and enrolling as a student in the Addis Ababa School of Art. There are great things happening and thank God for that.

It is hard if not impossible to fully appreciate the benefits of art. To a greater or lesser degree a painter engages with their art as a form of therapy, a means of expression and also a way to expand the horizon of imagination. Thinking of all those benefits it is easy to imagine the attraction that art offers to people locked up in a prison. I have watched these artists grow and mature. Hesitant brush strokes have given way to confident flourishes. In a quiet manner every brush stroke is its own blow for freedom, the freedom to show their personality to the world.

On a recent visit to Ethiopia, I asked five of the prison artists to collaborate on creating their own interpretation of the Stations of the Cross.

The guidelines were simple: the Stations were to be set in contemporary Ethiopia. More specifically the Stations were to be set in the prison. Jesus and all the characters depicted were to be Ethiopian.

The Stations were to have the look and the feel of the prison. It is a most intriguing thing but it was a surprise to the prisoners when I mentioned that Jesus had been a prisoner as well. They knew the story but didn’t make the connection between their story and the experience of Jesus.

I am intrigued about the things that the prisoners have chosen to emphasise, to add and to subtract. When Jesus meets His mother it is a really touching scene.

Jesus is bowed down and Our Lady is hidden, lost almost in her own grief. Thinking of the grief of so many of the female prisoners it is a very poignant scene. When Veronica wipes the face of Jesus both their faces are hidden. In the scene where Jesus is consoling the women of Jerusalem it is Jesus who is missing.


There is the strength of Simon of Cyrene as he lifts the cross. Jesus is exhausted but Simon is strong. I have found in the image of Jesus dying on the cross a window into the experience of vulnerability, fragility and powerlessness.

In spite of all this an angry sky in the background seems to hold a faint promise that this death might not be the end. The resurrection is dazzling and a timely reminder that the wounds of Christ are still evident in our broken world. Christ is still present in the rags and the suffering of the poor.

I am delighted with this collection. They express the all too human journey of Jesus through his passion. There are moments in life that are really striking. The prisoners took a journey of faith to make this collection.

All of the five artists began and concluded their work with prayer. They learnt about each other and they learnt more about Jesus the prisoner.

Perhaps above all they show the relevance of Jesus in every place where we are. Knowingly or unknowingly we are all part of the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. We all have our stories to tell.

The prisoners have told theirs magnificently. It is a great joy to show their creativity to a wider audience.

Fr Paddy Moran CSSp is the Vocations Director for the Spiritans in Ireland. For more information on becoming a Spiritan missionary his e-mail is youth@spiritan.ie