Sunday, December 6, 2015

Thomas Merton and Pornchai Moontri: A Prayer for the Year of Mercy

                                                                             By Ryan A. MacDonald

Pornchai Moontri was Valedictorian of his high school graduating class of 2012

Tragedy struck the life of Pornchai Moontri obstructing justice and mercy. Now echoed in a prayer by Thomas Merton, the redemption of Pornchai evokes the Year of Mercy.  

Some recent posts over on These Stone Walls made me want to revisit something I published a few years ago but never got back to.  It was an article titled “Pornchai Moontri at the Narrow Gate,” and it has always needed a sequel. 

A lot has come to light since I first ventured into the remarkable life of this remarkable young man.  I have learned a lot about Pornchai’s life, including the fact that at age two in Northern Thailand, he was abandoned to the streets and had to be hospitalized for severe malnutrition before relatives came to rescue him.  Living with the wonderful and kind extended family of his mother, he worked hard in childhood, but he was happy.

Then, at the vulnerable age of eleven, he was torn from his home, his country, his very identity, and brought to America.  In the ordinary course, this could have been a golden opportunity for a child like Pornchai.  America should have meant a home, an education, a family, nourishment, a life.  Instead, this child was forced by a chain of events into homelessness and despair.  How and why that happened to him at age twelve in 1985 is a shocking story waiting to be told.  And it will be told. But not just yet.

Speaking and understanding little English, Pornchai was deprived of a home, a family, and guidance at an age when most American children coped with little more than school and homework.  His childhood on the streets was consumed with the bare necessities of mere survival.  On a daily basis, for the second time in his life, Pornchai faced the challenges of finding food, shelter, and the means to survive alone in a foreign land. Six years later, at age 18, a fight and a flight took a life, and Pornchai was sent to prison.

Today, Pornchai has transformed from within.  He graduated from high school as an honor student in 2012, was Valedictorian of his class, and has since completed post-secondary courses in theology with a Grade Point Average of 4.0 at Catholic Distance University.  Then he earned two diplomas with highest honors in Psychology and Social Work at the Stratford Career Institute.  He did all of this while in prison with some help from friends to pay his tuition, aided by the sale of some magnificent woodworking projects he created in prison. 

Today, Pornchai is a mentor to his peers, a source of guidance for others in troubled times, and a model of recovery from the darkest of adversities.  Pornchai knows the past will echo throughout his life. He was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a cross he had carried alone for much of his life.

Five years ago, Pornchai also became Catholic on the Feast of Divine Mercy in 2010.  He has since led many others from the dark wood of error down that same path with the example he set as a member of Saint Maximilian Kolbe’s Knights at the Foot of the Cross.  In 2012 on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Pornchai Consecrated himself to Jesus through Mary after completing the “33Days to Morning Glory” retreat.  He was among the first prisoners in the world to do so, and his special witness was chronicled by my fellow journalist, Felix Carroll in “Mary is at Work Here.”

Marian Helper

Pornchai Moontri accomplished all of this – or more accurately it was all accomplished within him – while a prisoner in the State of New Hampshire after having emerged from seven years in a long dark night of the soul held in the cruelty of solitary confinement.  For his sheer power of resilience and access to the Force within him, Luke Skywalker has nothing on Pornchai Moontri.

Late last month, it was my privilege to interview Pornchai via telephone from prison.  As we spoke, I could not help but ponder some of the powerful accounts of radical conversion and new life revealed to us in Sacred Scripture.  His story feels like some of those.  Upon encountering God, Abram became Abraham, Simon became Peter, and Saul – who once persecuted Christ – became Paul.

Pornchai Moontri has become “Max” – short for Maximilian – in honor of his Patron Saint, a fellow prisoner and traveller on this road, Saint Maximilian Kolbe.  It was this new name that caused me to want to write of Max again after reading Father Gordon MacRae’s wonderful recent post on These Stone Walls:  “PatronSaints:  Knock, Knock, Knockin' on Heaven’s Door."

It tells the story of how St. Maximilian Kolbe inserted himself into the life of this wrongly imprisoned priest and then, through him, into the life of Pornchai Maximilian Moontri.  It is a breathtaking and remarkable account of Divine Mercy, and required reading during the Jubilee Year of Mercy that commences on December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

Knowing what I know now about Pornchai’s present life and its stark contrast with a tragic past – much of which you can view at the powerful new site, Mercytothe Max – I had some trepidation about broaching some tough subjects, but my concern was premature.  We spoke at length about the trauma and trials of the past, and we ended up agreeing that much of this is a story yet to come.

So we dwelled mostly on the present and future.  I had lots of questions for Pornchai about the daily life he and “Father G” lead in trying circumstances.  Like a good reporter, I was trying to uncover who these two men really are and how they live and cope with the day to day trials of decades of imprisonment.  Pornchai spoke candidly about their day to day life and the lives of the other prisoners who have become part of their orbit.

Some of this was painful to hear.  Some of it was very funny.  But in the end, I could use little of what I learned.  These guys will never be fodder for the usual news media or any of the mundane and shallow media that most consumers of the news have come to settle for.  They live on another plane of existence than most, and it is not easy to describe in words.

One response of Pornchai struck me hard, however.  I have learned a lot about prisons in America. One hard truth is that state prisons virtually starve prisoners, and then sell food to them at a profit.  In the New Hampshire prison, the food budget has been slashed year after year, and the daily caloric intake for those who cannot purchase food is on the level of bare sustenance.

The prison commissary where our friends may purchase food and supplies once per week has a four-page list of basic food items, hygiene and medical supplies, postage and writing supplies, and even some clothing that prison inmates must provide for themselves.  I wondered how someone like Pornchai, with no solid roots in this country, could possibly endure and cope with prison in these circumstances.

Pornchai brushed aside the question, but I got my answer from another inmate who asked that I not use his name.  He told me that the prison commissary was closed for three weeks in November, and that everyone in the unit where our two friends live ran completely out of food, coffee, postage, and other necessities.  The inmate said that Father G and Pornchai gave much of the food they had to others with nothing, and by the end of the second week, Pornchai had nothing but two packages of Ramen noodles left, and another week to go before they could purchase any food.  He said Father G and others were going to bed hungry each night, and they kept this to themselves.

But the inmate who wrote to me also told me that there was a new inmate in that unit who was living in the overflow bunks in the recreation area of this overcrowded prison.  This man is diabetic, and one night had seizures from hypoglycemia. The prisoner said that Pornchai – called “Ponch” by other inmates – brought this man the last two packages of Ramen noodles he had, and told him to come and get hot water for them whenever he needed them.

I asked Pornchai why he did this.  He seemed embarrassed that I had learned of it, but finally said, “I’ve been hungry and know what it’s like.  It’s what St. Maximilian would have done.  It’s what he would want me to do.”  He didn’t seem to want me to write about this, but of all the struggles he copes with day to day for 24 years in prison, this incident seems the one that best defines him.  This is the guy the justice system up there just described as showing inadequate “evidence that you have made a substantial and sustained effort to lead a positive and productive life.”

I asked Pornchai – “Max” – if he was discouraged by the recent denial of his Clemency Petition for commutation of his sentence after 24 years in prison. After all, I just read this week that the maximum sentence in the U.S. federal prisons for inmates convicted of that same crime is 23 years, and Pornchai has already surpassed that. He said that he plans to try again next summer, but what he really wanted to talk about was Pope Francis.

Max told me that he and Father Gordon MacRae both listened to Pope Francis address a jointsession of Congress during his recent visit to the United States, and Max was very excited to hear the Holy Father mention Thomas Merton.  Max said that Thomas Merton wrote a prayer that a reader of These Stone Walls printed and sent to him last year.  He said that this prayer has become the defining sense of his life, past, present and future. Max said that this is now his prayer for the Year of Mercy.  I struggled to contain my emotions as Max read it to me:

 My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude)

So our friend Pornchai is now Pornchai-Max, and I for one welcome the addition.  At some point – hopefully a year from now if justice and mercy prevail – he will be released from the prison to which he was consigned at age 18.  At that point, he will be detained elsewhere until his deportation to Thailand, a country he has not seen since childhood.

Last year Felix Carroll and Marian Press published a wonderful book, Love, Lost, Found, with a chapter that chronicles the story of Porchai Moontri and his Divine Mercy conversion.  The Divine Mercy apostolate in Bangkok has become very interested in Pornchai-Max, and plans to receive him when he arrives.  But he will have to start his life over and that is no easy task.  As this coming Year of Mercy commences, lets make this a mission of mercy.

If you, or anyone you know, wants to help restore a life and future for Pornchai, gifts to a fund for him can be sent via the Pay-Pal link at the Home Page of TheseStone Walls.  Simply mention in your message that your gift is to be used for the support of Pornchai Moontri and it will be marked for this purpose by his Godmother, Charlene Duline, who manages that Pay-Pal account.  You may also make checks out to Pornchai Moontri and mail to me at:
            Pornchai Moontri
            c/o Ryan A. MacDonald
            P.O. Box 68732
            Indianapolis, IN 46268-0732

To assist in the support of both Fr. Gordon and Pornchai you may use the same PayPal link above or  address your check to:
            Fr. Gordon J. MacRae
P.O. Box 205
            Wilmington, MA 01887-0205

Inquiries can be sent to me at

Thank you for reading.  Let the Year of Mercy commence!

Love, Lost, Found:  17 Divine Mercy Conversions by Felix Carroll is available at


  1. I pray every day for them. Thank you for this update!

  2. This is just excellent, Ryan. Thanks. I admire Max so much and every new little thing I hear of him makes that admiration go up a notch or two. (this is not Steve Cherry; this is Mary Fran). I write to Max frequently.

  3. Thank you, Mr. MacDonald, for writing this update. We love Pornchai so much in our family. He is such an inspiration. It is such a dreadful shame how prisoners are treated without human dignity and without enough food to sustain them! That's outrageous! I read that part of your post about the lack of enough food to my younger children and plan to send the article to my older children. We will be praying and sacrificing during Advent for Fr. MacRae, Pornchai and the other prisoners. Thank you. Liz

  4. I'm very glad to see this post, and the comments from our friends. Ryan wrote here that he has learned a lot about prisons. So have Max and I, but the hard way. We survived that month of skimpy food, and neither of us is any skinnier or worse off for the wear. I can't say we don't struggle but we cope with prison better than most so please don't worry about us. As for the rest of the article, it says a lot about Max, about his character and spirit and his discovery of the gifts God has given to him. I believe he has a wonderful future filled with grace and important things on the horizon beyond prison. The people who have written about him have helped to change his life. I am so very proud of Ryan, Felix Carroll, Father George David Byers, Michael Brandon and others who have taken up pen for this cause. With Divine Mercy Blessings, Father Gordon.

  5. The following comment by way of explanation was posted on These Stone Walls by Brian Holdsworth of the Fishers New Awards site:

    Hello TSW followers. My name is Brian Holdsworth and I’m one of the founders and judges on the Fisher’s Net Awards. We’ve received a couple angry emails which condemned us for the outcome of the awards. I took the time to personally respond to each but since then I’ve come across this comment thread and thought I should respond here as well.

    There are many serious accusations being thrown around on here that I find offensive and unfair (especially in which the sincerity of my Catholic faith is called into question). I’d like to invite all of you to think long and hard before you assume the worst about someone and pass such judgements unless you’re convinced that you will stand blameless before God when you’re judgement comes.

    The Fisher’s Net Awards clearly describes how the awards are chosen on the website, but let me take the time to reiterate. The nominees were submitted to us for approval and inclusion in the public voting. Once the nomination period ended, the public polls were opened. On December 1st the polls closed and the judges were given the chance to chose the winner from the top 3 (based on public votes). TSW was one of the top three for its category, but for whatever reason, the judges did not pick it as their favorite. This process was described on the FAQ page from the beginning.

    You may not think it’s the best way to choose the winner, but we thought it best combined input from the public as well as expert opinions. Without the latter, it would have simply been a popularity contest instead of something based on actual merit. The FNA was not setup to be a popularity contest but an award based on having created the best website (with an emphasis on design and technical achievement). Based on that criteria, TSW didn’t actually qualify because it is neither technically or visually impressive (which shouldn’t come as a surprise given Fr. Gordon’s limited resources – i.e. who can blame him). You may disagree, but as a professional web designer, I think my opinion bears a little more weight. In spite of that fact, I spent the time looking through the site and reading the articles. Considering we had hundreds of nominees, I couldn’t actually afford to take that kind of time with each one, but for this one I made an exception and after reading it, decided to include it to try and bring greater awareness to Fr. Gordon’s case. I included TSW as a nominee even though doing so was a violation of our own judging criteria. It’s ironic that I’m now the subject of so much anger…

    The judge’s decision was not rigged and it was democratic. The judges were not influenced by anything other than the criteria and this makes it impossible for the decision to be the result of any single person’s agenda.

    I appreciate the passion and conviction with which you all follow this blog and fight for awareness for this case, but getting outraged over an online award of little consequence is going to do little to bring justice to Fr. Gordon. Nor will outrageous accusations and conemenations against people with whom you are not acquainted. Please take the time to inform yourselves before you attack others and draw such conclusions and if you can’t be sure, consider not saying anything at all.

  6. That's not right. The state constitution almost certainly has a provision similar to COTUS A8 - prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. ... i.e. Low caloric intake should be unconstitutional, and basic necessities should be provided by the state.

    That said. I realize the cost of litigating the matter is beyond the means of most of us: but it could be a ground breaker for a small firm.


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