I had the fortunate opportunity to attend the Catholic Prison Chaplains conference in Sept. Cardinal +Vincent Nichols spoke to us on the theme ‘Confinement Is Not the Same Thing as Exclusion’.
In this Year of Mercy I find myself saying prison chaplaincy is a Ministry of Mercy – Mercy ultimately from God flowing through His people to the people who found themselves not being able to go beyond the prison walls.
These are some of the words spoken by Vincent Nichols which I feel urge all of us to look again at what it means to be merciful like the Father.
The title of the talk, ‘Confinement Is Not the Same Thing as Exclusion’, was taken from the words that the Pope spoke in the penitentiary in Philadelphia earlier this year. It reminded us that prisoners should never be forgotten with ‘the door locked and the key thrown away’ affirming that the crucial principle that meeting the needs of prisoners is an important part of any civilised society.
The Cardinal said that the Catholic Church has a vital part to play in this work, not only because she wishes to contribute wholeheartedly to the well-being of society but also because, through the eyes of faith, the church has a particular perspective on those who are in prison and a clear mandate from Our Lord and Master that she should care for them. He said: ‘I was in prison and you came to visit me’ (Mt 25.36), thereby identifying himself with those behind bars.
The Cardinal cited the recent report of the Bishops’ Conference, Belief and Belonging, which covers many important themes including the importance given by Catholics in prison to their being able to take part in the celebration of the Mass. They testify that doing so brings them closer to God, helps them to cope during this intensely testing period of their lives, and strengthens their connections with the Catholic community, both inside and outside the prison walls. Volunteers from local parishes make a valuable contribution as they participate in the Eucharist with this mostly temporarily captive group of the body of Christ.
Cardinal Vincent emphasised that our parishes are particularly well placed to welcome people and help them get back on their feet so they are less stigmatised and rejected and are reminded that they can be active member of the Church and have a real stake in society.
The Cardinal hopes and prays that this Year of Mercy will be a rallying call for Catholics actively to reach out a hand of friendship and offer practical assistance to those leaving prison. For even the smallest actions can give someone hope and help them to stay on the right path.
Pope Francis described the importance and the experience of family members visiting prisons: “They undergo the humiliation of being searched. They don’t disown their close family members, even though they have made mistakes; they go and visit them. This seemingly small gesture is great in the eyes of God. It is a gesture of mercy, despite the errors that their dear ones have committed”. Parishes and charities support these families by offering practical assistance because as Pope Francis said “their fall could have been mine”. In different circumstances many of us may well have been led to make the terrible choices that led our brothers and sisters to prison.
Pope Francis said to prisoners in Philadelphia: “Jesus wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust. He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realise that we have a mission, and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion”.
Our Catholic faith communities can help our brothers and sisters walk along their life journeys, by offering hope, restoring faith and trust and including them in the Church’s mission so that they know they are restricted but not totally shut out from society.
Let this Year of Mercy be the beginning of the Church of Mercy.
If you would like to find out more about volunteering please look in the Diocesan year book for a prison near you and contact the chaplaincy.
-Lynda Durcan, Prison Chaplain