A string of blessings
I was in prison and you visited me. – Matthew 25:36
BRISBANE priest Fr Kevin Ryan began writing a regular column for The Catholic Leader in 1994, soon becoming one of the newspaper’s most popular writers.
Ten years later he met Rory Norris inside a Brisbane prison. Fr Ryan, who was serving as a prison chaplain, had just one message for young Rory.
“To get off the drugs,” Rory recalls.
Fr Ryan’s death in March 2011 came as shock.
“Before Fr Kevin Ryan passed away, he’s probably the best thing that happened to me in jail,” Rory said.
“I could relate to him and the guidance he used to give me.
“With the Church aspect, (Fr Ryan) didn’t try and force it on people.
“He would, if they were into it, he would be more than happy.
“But, if not, he’s just happy to talk about life, and how things are.”
Rory says religion and drugs made a strange cocktail for an active addict, but it was his own religious painting that caught the attention of the Catholic Church’s most famous leader.
Inside his cell in early 2015, Rory stared at a peaceful statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
He held a brush in one hand and turned back and forth from the statue to an empty canvas.
Stroke after stroke, she became his new muse, a distraction from useless chitter-chatter about drugs and crime.
His mum Francine Walker suggested he add elements of his struggle with heroin and jail to personalise the painting.
“So I just put tattoo style (images) and the barbed wire,” he said.
The two-week project inside a high-security prison even attracted the attention of the inmates.
“Yeah, they like it,” he said.
“Not many of them are religious in there, but they like the painting.”
Some offered to buy the painting of the Miraculous, monochromatic woman.
But Rory’s answer was no; it was a gift for his mum.
“It was mostly for Mum because she’s very religious,” he said.
“It just gave me meaning, something to do rather than sit around talking about drugs and crime.
“I’d just do my own thing and paint.”
Rory sent the finished painting to Mrs Walker while still in prison.
Moved by his beautiful gift, she called on good friend Jesuit Father Gregory Jordan, who was involved with Friends of the Prisoners organisation in the early 1980s and would meet with Rory out of jail.
They called Rory’s painting, Our Lady, Mother and Friend of Prisoners.
Fr Jordan penned a prayer to accompany the painting, approved by the Archbishop of Brisbane.
He helped Mrs Walker send the prayer and a copy of the painting to the Holy Father on March 12 last year.
One week later, Mrs Walker broke down in tears at news from Monsignor John Kallarackal who wrote, on behalf of the apostolic nunciature of Australia, that Rory’s painting and accompanying prayer would be sent straight to the Vatican.
“I have been impressed by the quality and the care of details in the work your son painted,” Msgr Kallarackal wrote.
“Please be assured that I will forward your letter, the painting and the prayer to the Holy Father with the next diplomatic pouch.”
On May 5, 2015, Msgr Kallarackal sent a second letter.
“Holy Father wishes to assure you and your beloved son his prayers and please find enclosed herewith picture of Pope Francis and Rosaries blessed by him for both of you,” he wrote.
“Mum always tells me to sleep with them (the Rosary beads),” Rory said.
Rory believes his painting will be a sign of freedom to those who believe in the Mother of God.
ìUnbind him. Let him go free.î John 11:44
Road to freedom
ON January 12, Rory Norris walked out of jail for the sixth time, determined to throw away the drug dependency that stole 10 years of his life.
But temptation was waiting across the road.
“I met someone (a dealer) straight away,” he said.
“It was just after I’d been out of jail and it was a good thing to say I’m not using anymore, that I’m getting the implant.
“I think that was a sign, him being there.”
Rory says he never wants to go back to jail, or back to his dirty habit.
“I’m just trying to remember jail and how much I hated it this time, so I just remember that every time I think negative,” he said.
“They don’t treat you like humans. It’s pretty degrading.”
Two weeks after walking out of jail and brushing off the dealer, Rory walked into a clinic in Highgate Hill to meet Dr Stuart Reece again.
This time, he would get the controversial Naltrexone implant, designed to wean addicts off heroin, and which has also been used in Australia to treat addictions to ice and alcohol.
“It was the best I’ve ever felt because I knew I was getting the implant,” Rory said.
He and his mum held hands, waiting for a clear path on the road to freedom, which would only take one hour of his life.
“I love you, Mum,” he says as the procedure comes to an end.
To be continued…