Law school dean-turned-priest brings healing to prisoners

Maura Poston Zagrans knows a good story when she hears one. When she found out that David T. Link, longtime dean of the University of Notre Dame Law School, had become a Catholic priest and a prison chaplain, she shouted, “That’s a book!”

She didn’t stop there. She ran to the Notre Dame bookstore to make sure no one else had already written it.

What was so surprising about this news was not merely that Dean Link was in his 70s, a father and grandfather, and that his curriculum vitae also included four doctorates and the titles of founding president of University of Notre Dame Australia and provost of St. Augustine University in South Africa.

What Zagrans found truly extraordinary is that “he had taught over 4,000 people how to serve the criminal justice system, how to be attorneys. Many of his attorneys are responsible for putting some of the 2.3 million Americans who are behind bars in prison. ... And now he’s become a priest in order to give his life to prisoners.”

Thus was conceived her recently released book “Camerado, I Give You My Hand” (Image, $22). The title, derived from a Walt Whitman poem, sums up Father Link’s life and ministry perfectly: befriending those he calls “the least, the last, the lost and the lonely.”

Surprising turn of events

Father Link’s story is full of surprises.

The first surprise was when Dean Link’s wife, Barbara, suggested to him about 15 years ago that he consider volunteering at a prison.

“Why would I do that?” he asked.

“I think you’d really like it,” she answered.

“I thought she was crazy,” Father Link told Our Sunday Visitor. “I went with the express intent of showing her that she was wrong. But she was right. I enjoyed it greatly.”

That was the next surprise — how fulfilled he felt in giving lectures to these prisoners. Also how different the prisoners were from what he expected. Finding himself in a room with 60 “lifers” and no guards, it occurred to him, “I’m in here with all these dangerous people,” but then he also realized, “They’re children of God.”

“He was stunned at how bright they were and how eager to learn,” Zagrans told OSV. “They didn’t ask questions about how to use the system to their benefit. They were really philosophers, wanting to know the philosophy of ethics and justice: How do we put this into our lives? How do we have an ethical orientation in the way we think and in our actions? He was blown away. He said he was never the same person.”

After loss, a new vocation

When Barbara Link died in 2003, Link’s family and friends feared that he might soon follow her. He began volunteering at the prisons more often, “as a sort of therapy.”

“I needed to be needed,” he said.

This led to the next surprise. A personal ordination invitation from his bishop. Bishop Dale Melczek of Gary, Ind., contacted him, saying, “You’ve been doing a lot of prison ministry; I need a prison chaplain. Would you consider going into the seminary?”

Link replied that he had been thinking of entering the diaconate.

The bishop countered, “I was thinking of the priesthood.”

Later, Bishop Melczek told Zagrans: “I believe that if Christ were walking the earth today, he would be involved in prison ministry, just like Dave Link.”

“He wanted to put his best guy in the prisons,” Zagrans said. “And that was Father Link.”

After completing his studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Wisconsin, Father Link was ordained to the priesthood in June 2008.

Five years later, his becoming a priest continues to be a surprise — even for Father Link. He told OSV that every morning when he looks in the mirror, he thinks, “What is this priest doing in my bathroom?” But he quickly added: “It’s a pleasant shock. I love being a priest, and I love prison ministry.”

Using the law to heal

Father Link book

Although Father Link’s path to his vocation may be unusual, there are hints from his life experiences that make his story not quite as surprising as it might first seem.

From the beginning, his law practice included regular pro bono work, and he set aside every Thursday for those who could not afford to pay him.

As an attorney, he developed an elevated view of his profession: the purpose of law was to bring about healing. This perspective lead in practice to an astounding record of mediation: all his cases were settled out of court. He also brought this unique outlook to Notre Dame as professor and dean, passing this lofty perspective on to thousands of students and transforming the law school in the process.

“Notre Dame lawyers are the ones who practice law in a more ethical and more sensitive way,” attorney-at-law and former student Jim Dahl told Zagrans for her book. “These are not going to be the guys who gouge clients or condone a ‘whatever it takes’ mentality. ... This notion that the law is a noble profession, here to resolve not create conflict … That all came out of Dave Link’s pulpit.”

Valuable life experiences

On the personal level, the Links served the less fortunate in many ways. They became involved in the civil rights movement early on and volunteered for causes such as Habitat for Humanity.

After working with the homeless for years, Link conceived of a place that was more than a shelter: a sanctuary where they could heal and grow. He co-founded the Center for the Homeless in South Bend — a complex that over the course of 23 years has helped more than 51,000 people escape homelessness. Familiarity with the dysfunctional causes often underlying the life-stories of both the homeless and prisoners has also prepared him for his present ministry.

Even his age and family experience have been valuable: the prisoners can sense his caring fatherliness. “I’m old enough to be their dad or grandfather, so I’m the one they talk to; they bear their souls to me,” he said. “I’m privileged — in addition to being their spiritual father — to be able to be their surrogate father too.”

“Everything I’ve done has built to this,” Father Link said. “It all builds on helping people find their life’s purpose and get them on that path.”

The purpose of everyone’s life is to reach heaven, he said, bringing as many others as possible. How we do so constitutes our personal path.

“And now,” he added, “I’ve got to tell people what I’m learning.” 

Jeanette Flood writes from Ohio.