Once a pandillero, i.e. affiliate of a crime ring, now a Minister of God, an ex-convict turned priest. It’s the peculiar story of thirty-five year-old Gabirel Everardo Zul Mejía from Mexico. On Friday evening he will be ordained by his archbishop, Mons. Rogelio Cabrera López, in Monterrey. He asked that this solemn occasion be lived out not in the cathedral, as will happen for ten of his seminary companions, but inside the walls of the Apodaca prison, sadly known for the living conditions of its detainees (a revolt in 2012 left 38 dead), a phenomenon seen throughout Mexico. If on Holy Thursday Pope Francis washes the feet of convicts – Gebirel must have thought – also a priestly ordination inside a correction facility could be a powerful sign. All the more powerful in the light of the fact that new priest, who has a passion for football and Vallenato music (traditional Latin-American folk music originally from Columbia), considers himself first of all a “convert”, thanks to the experience in prison and the encounter with detainees. That is where he discovered the mercy of God, and that is where he wants his mission as shepherd and witness to the merciful love of God, to begin.
From criminal rings to prison. He thus described some of the stages of his life: “Before my conversion, before encountering Jesus Christ, my life was overwhelmed by the conflicts linked to what in Latin America is called “pandillerismo” – , i.e., criminal activity organized in rings, the so called “pandillas”- .
“Unfortunately back then I didn’t appreciate the love of my parents and brothers. My behaviours led to my arrest and detention in the Topo Chico prison. I remember that they placed me in a ward that went under the name “Observation.” That’s where my dialogue with God began, I started to pray.”
Gabirel used to say to himself, addressing the Lord: “I don’t know you, but I know that you will not leave me in here!” The new priest remarked, “after some time I realized that God had listened to my prayer, to the prayer of my mother and of the Church, that never stops praying for youths who have gone astray.” He added: “the time I spent in prison helped me rediscover myself, it made me realize the value of what God gave me in my parents’ home and it made me understand that I recovered freedom inside the prison.”
Discovering the mercy of God through other inmates. The memory goes back to the years in prison. “I remember some experiences that marked that period in my life: the brothers-inmates whom I met in prison, who took care of me and gave me advice… They were the first to teach me what I now recognize as acts of mercy, and through them I discovered the love of God.”
The prison remained a fixed point in Gabirel’s life, even after having entered the Seminary:
“I was given specific tasks in the area of apostolate, involving Church activity in concrete situations, such as the pastoral care of vocations, the pastoral care of health, and pastoral care in prisons, on two occasions. During the first year of Theology, I used to carry out my ministry in prison almost every Saturday and also after then, when I started living in the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, two years ago. During that period I accompanied prison pastoral care, with spiritual and liturgical activities, by promoting a dialogue with the families and children of detainees, as well as through sports and social activities. I now live in another parish, and my presence in prison is less frequent, but I continued visiting my convicted friends and I organized some occasions for encounter and celebration.”
A “heartfelt” yearning. Thus for Gabirel under many aspects the decision to be ordained in the Apodaca prison next July 27 came natural. He didn’t view it as an extraordinary event, although it probably has never happened before. It follows in with the words of the archbishop of Monterrey on the occasion of the presentation of the new priests of the archdiocese past Sunday: “The priesthood that is distant from the people is impossible.” The young man who will soon be ordained priest, thus concluded: “Now my wish is to go to my friends in the Apodaca prison and share the joy of my priestly ordination with them. My heartfelt wish is that they may be witnesses of the mercy that God gives to one of his servants, by allowing me to become a priest for eternity.”