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10-John-Pridmore

Taking inspiration from an ex-gangster’s paradise

Former convict John Pridmore is showing others the path to salvation through his harrowing story of redemption, writes Fr Jamie McMorrin.

Last Wednesday I met a gangster coming out of a lift. Thankfully, he was an ex-gangster and was about to deliver a talk on ‘The Power of Jesus’ at a conference for young Catholics I was attending.

Although he still looks the part, with a tight-fitting black suit and a fistful of rings, these days John Pridmore is armed with a set of Rosary beads rather than a machete and counts among his posse the Blessed Virgin Mary, the holy Guardian Angels and a French nun who goes by the nomme de guerre of ‘The Little Flower.’

Saul of Tarsus

His talk was inspirational: a modern day Saul of Tarsus, Pridmore turned his back on a life of violence and intimidation and now travels the world proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, testifying to the radical power of the Gospel to transform lives.

He speaks from first hand experience—at the age of 13, he began to steal and found himself behind bars at 15. An example of the adage that ‘hurt people hurt people,’ he dealt with the pain he’d experienced in his own life by inflicting pain on others.

Crime

In prison again at 19, he was repeatedly put in solitary confinement as a trouble-maker, treatment which made him only more bitter and more angry, and upon his release he entered a life of organised crime in the East End of London. Crime, in this case, paid rather well and for years he lived the high life of fast cars, beautiful women, and hard drugs.

One night, working as a bouncer, he punched a man with a knuckle-duster and almost killed him. But this pub fight was his Damascus road: facing a charge of grievous bodily harm, he was brought to his knees by the enormity of what he’d done and prayed to God, in a moment of desperation, ‘give me another chance!’

‘From Gangland to Promised Land’

In his book From Gangland to Promised Land (which I read almost in one sitting on the coach back to Scotland), he describes the experience: “Suddenly I felt as if someone’s hands were on my shoulders and I was being lifted up. An incredible warmth overpowered me and the fear suddenly evaporated. At that moment I knew—really knew, not just believed—that God was real.”

He repented of his life of violence, went on retreat and, eventually, made his first Confession which he said ‘brought him back to life.’ Now, whenever he talks to groups, he always testifies to the power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Sure enough, he concluded his talk last Wednesday by exhorting everyone in the room to go to confession before the end of the conference, and to make sure to not to leave the conference with any sins unrepented.

Confession

When a man the size of John Pridmore tells you to go to confession, you go to confession. So, when I joined the queue after night prayer later that evening, I settled myself in for a long wait. Two priests were still hearing confessions an hour and a half later.

I’m certainly never short of things to confess, but my own past is a little less colourful than Mr Pridmore’s. I’ve never been in a proper fight—a playground scuffle when I was in Primary Seven and an altercation with my brother over some stolen hair gel was about as violent as things got (I came off worse on both occasions). But the sincerity of Pridmore’s testimony reminded me very powerfully of my own need for repentance, for healing and for the amazing, transforming grace that comes to us through the Sacraments.

Prison Mass

This was brought home to me already this summer when I said Mass for the first time in our local prison.

I was struck by the fact that in the liturgy properly celebrated, there is no us and them: we each of us, priest and people, confess together that we’ve grievously offended God, through our own fault. We are united in gazing upon the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, acknowledging our common unworthiness to have Him enter under our roofs.

What is so refreshing about John Pridmore is that he knows it. For him, the prayer ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner’ is not a pious metaphor: it’s the honest truth of the human condition in God’s sight. All of us have, in our own way, ‘fallen short of the glory of God’ and are redeemed by his unearned grace.

St Paul

And what is even more tremendous is that he can then use us to bring others to Him too. St Paul, writing to his young protégé, Timothy, describes himself as the ‘worst of sinners’ not out of low self-esteem or false humility, but as a witness to God’s great mercy, more abundant than all the world’s sin.

The struggle for holiness is real. We fight not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of darkness at work in our world and in our own lives. Our weapons are prayer, good works and a lot of humility. John Pridmore is a good man to have on our side.

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