'I Was in Prison...You Visited Me'

Posted: 6/5/2012

Glenmary priests, brothers and coworkers count those living behind bars as members of their mission counties. Through prison ministry outreach, members of this often forgotten, marginalized population are receiving spiritual guidance and the life-giving gifts of the Church.

By Jean Bach

Glenmary Home Missioners mission team visits prisonersThe day after celebrating his first papal Christmas Mass in 1958, Pope John XXIII left Vatican City to visit the inmates at Rome's notorious Regina Coeli prison. When he arrived he explained his visit to the prisoners: "You could not come to see me so I have come to see you."

Glenmary missioners and coworkers have seen the prison industry grow in mission areas over the past decade. County jails have expanded and now house more state and federal prisoners. For-profit prisons (see related sidebar below) have also been built to help house the estimated 2.2 million persons who are incarcerated in the United States.

But even before the prison boom, Glenmary missioners and coworkers—just like Pope John—were answering the call to minister to those cut off from society and imprisoned in local, state and federal prisons that dot the South and Appalachia.

Since last November, Kathy O'Brien and Martin Baza of Glenmary's St. Jude mission in Waldron, Ark., have spent almost every Monday night visiting inmates at the Scott County jail.

The old county jail housed only county inmates. And because the Catholic population of the county is so small, Catholics were rarely prisoners. But now that more out-of-county prisoners are housed there, that's changing.

The seed for the ministry was planted when a mission member met a Catholic prisoner at the recently opened 76-bed jail. The inmate said she'd like someone from the Catholic Church to visit her. The ministry opportunity was presented at a parish meeting, where it received approval. After getting permission from the sheriff, the ministry was born.

"What's so special about this idea is that it came from our own parishioner who saw this need and followed up on it," says Kathy, who serves as administrator of St. Jude.

She meets with the women prisoners and Martin meets with the men. They pray using the English and Spanish Bibles the mission provided, they discuss the Sunday Scriptures and they have a Word and Communion service.

Non-Catholics are often included in the groups, too. "This ministry is for anyone who needs it," Kathy explains.

But for Catholics, reconnecting with the Church is especially powerful and meaningful because through that connection, they can often find healing in the sacraments.

The impact Kathy and Martin's visits have had on prisoners varies. Kristofer, 25, who is Catholic, has been in jail for nine months. He says Martin's visits have given him hope. "I know God must still love me because he sent a man as caring and loving as Martin to visit me and to teach me God's ways."

In prison for narcotics distribution and jumping bail, Kristofer says in the future he hopes "to show the community what a positive life the Church, Martin and God have put into my heart."

Kathy says she also noticed a profound change in some prisoners after Glenmary Father François Pellissier began hearing confessions at the prison a few months ago. Father François is the sacramental minister at St. Jude and administrator at St. Andrew in nearby Yell County.

One woman was "visibly changed" after receiving absolution, Kathy says. This inmate has been transferred to a prison in Oklahoma, but she sent Kathy a postcard thanking her for the change the ministry made in her life. "She must have used ‘thank you' five times on the postcard."

Johnnie, another inmate, says he was scared when he went to prison three months ago. But with Martin began visiting him, his fears eased.

Though not Catholic, Johnnie attends the weekly Communion services and says it's a time when he can "actually relax." He also reads the Bible with Martin. It's helping him "understand the right way to live. I now understand that I need to live for God and for God alone."

Johnnie, who is from Waldron, has also shown interest in becoming Catholic. Martin hopes to walk with him through the RCIA process, beginning while he is in prison and continuing the journey after he is released.

When the Waldron mission is returned to the pastoral care of the Diocese of Little Rock in June, the prison ministry will continue with Martin and two women volunteers taking the lead.

"The Spirit continues to do wonderful things here in Waldron," Kathy says.

For-Profit Prisons

Although the jail in Scott County, Ark., is not a for-profit facility, private prisons and detention centers are a growing industry throughout the South, and the Catholic bishops of the South continue to call for—and work towards—ending the proliferation.

Glenmary Father Les Schmidt has been involved in this issue for over a decade. He serves as adviser and liaison to the Catholic Committee of the South, a network of bishops, church workers, Catholic laypeople and grass-roots organizations working for social change in the modern South through the use of Catholic social teaching.

During the 2011 annual meeting sponsored by the committee, ending for-profit, private prisons was one of four issues that participants said demanded action in the coming year.

In 2002, the bishops of the South also began the process of writing a series of eight pastoral letters on aspects of the criminal justice system. The letters were a follow-up to the U.S. bishops' statement, "Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice," adopted in November 2000.

In the pastorals, the southern bishops question whether private prisons protect the rights and dignity of inmates. When "prisoners become units from which profit is derived," they write, "there is a tendency to see them as commodities rather than as children of God."

For more information read the southern bishops’ pastoral letters or contact Father Les Schmidt.

This article appears in the Summer 2012 Glenmary Challenge.