A group of young men from the Spanish Catholic Action movement were attempting to renew the church in Palma, Majorca, Spain in 1949. They had worked long and hard to get people more involved and to counter the non-Christian world they were living in with its rise of secular values but all their efforts floundered. Each attempt seemed worse than the one before. They were at the point of giving up.
Then one evening, one of the men who had been working to develop the programme received an unexpected call from the chaplain of the local prison asking for a couple of volunteers to come to the prison and help with a difficult problem. Two young men were to be executed the next day, but they would have nothing to do with the chaplain. The chaplain thought perhaps a layman could reach them.
The man who received the call was frightened at the prospect of entering a prison, but after considerable prayer, he called a friend to join him in responding to the chaplain's call. Neither man had ever been in prison, but they agreed to come. As the two men entered the cell, they encountered the condemned pair playing cards and gambling with the guards. Prison rules declared that two guards must stay in the cell with the condemned men on the last night before execution. Their cell was littered with pornographic magazines and pin-ups. The condemned men seemed bent only on swapping dirty stories and gambling the night away.
One of the two men the chaplain had called was Eduardo Bonnin. He asked for permission to let them take the place of the guards. When this had been granted, they began talking to the prisoners, listening to their stories. Gradually, they won the prisoners' confidence and eventually, Eduardo said to them: "We came here to ask a favour of you."
At this point, the two men laughed loud and long. "A favour? Don't you realize that later this morning we..." and he made a gesture of being executed.
"But there is something you can do," said Bonnin. "We only wanted you to recommend something to the Lord for us. You are the only people we have met who know when they will meet the Lord face to face. Neither the Pope nor rulers nor rich nor poor know when they will meet God, yet you do. We want you to say something to Him. We feel it is so urgent. We have this wonderful project from which we expected great fruits, but so far we have failed miserably to get it going. We want you to ask the Lord to help us." And Bonnin proceeded to explain their hopes and anxieties concerning the program.
As the night worn on, they spoke of Christ and His love and mercy. They spoke of how the good thief had "stolen" heaven, and they talked about forgiveness. In the early hours of the morning, the chaplain heard the confessions of the inmates and held a private mass. The two inmates, Bonnin and his friend all received the Eucharist.
One of those men wrote to his family that night, and this is a translation from the Spanish:
Dearest family, so close to my heart,
These lines I am writing are the last you will receive from your son and brother. I am writing them more with my heart than my pen. I am in the condemned cell and have only a few hours remaining before I leave this life.
After my life of ill luck, God has granted me the extraordinary grace of enabling me to recognize my past faults and making peace with Him. He has given me this opportunity for sincere confession, which has opened, little by little, the gates of heaven.
It only remains for me to ask your pardon for all the heartaches I gave you during my life, with my straying, to recommend to my brothers whom I love with all my heart never to stray from the path of duty that you, my parents, taught us to follow. I never remembered you with such affection as at this moment. The end of my career has arrived. Praise be to God, who gave me these moments to ransom my life and to die as do those men who have faith.
My last thoughts on Earth are with you. Adios, until eternity.
When invited to have breakfast with the condemned men, Bonnin could not eat. He was too nervous. A short while later, they were led to the execution. One of them cried out for Eduardo Bonnin, and Eduardo told of how that man died, holding Eduardo's crucifix in one hand as Eduardo knelt beside him, praying for him. The executioners placed the hood over the man's head and affixed the chain that would break his neck with a sudden jerk.
These two inmates were executed in January 1949. The project that Eduardo Bonnin and his companions had in hand, and that they were successful in launching despite all their trials and efforts, was referred to as "Cursillos de Christiandad".
Surely we can conclude that Jesus said to them as He said to the thief who was crucified with Him "Today you will be with me in Paradise."
Bonnin still wears the cross the young condemned man held at his execution.
Extracted from the Kairos korner, LVCCM newsletter, October 1996