Ministry to those in prison…. some thoughts

Ministry to those in prison…. some thoughts

During the summer months just like many of the other students, I spent some time carrying out a pastoral placement. For me this involved extending my term-time pastoral work in a prison into a month of greater engagement at the same prison.

Chaplaincy work in a prison is challenging and multi-faceted. It asks many different things of the individual. One must be prepared to work with challenging people with complex histories who live in circumstances which place restrictions on their ability to make their own decisions, to communicate, and to interact with others. Prisoners come from a wide range of backgrounds. Often their home life and upbringing will have been problematic, or they may have a history of drug abuse, alcohol dependency, be the victims of abuse, or suffer from mental illness. For most people, living in a prison is an unpleasant and stressful experience, and it is often difficult to adjust and make the best of the opportunities offered. Prison is also a place with a wide range of ethnic groups and different religions.

All these things together make for an interesting and diverse group which the Chaplaincy team has to minister to. Although as a Friar it is possible to have meaningful interaction with Catholic prisoners, helping with their spiritual and emotional needs, much of the chaplaincy work involves dealing with people who are not Catholics. The task is to listen to them, and help them as much as possible. From a Christian perspective, I believe that being available and present to all the prisoners is a way of witnessing to the loving mercy of God, made known to us through Christ. Matthew’s Gospel reminds us of the need to treat each person we encounter as we would treat Christ himself, and that prisoners are no exception (see Matthew 25:36 onwards).

I have also discovered that Prison offers possibilities for evangelisation. Many prisoners lose much of what they hold dear when they are sent to prison, and are broken and humiliated. They may lose property, family and friends. As such, they have a great longing for Christ, and a thirst for the Gospel and its message of healing and forgiveness. Many rediscover their faith, or hear of the Catholic faith for the first time during their sentence. The openness of the prisoners about their sins and faults, and their determination to change and live a Christ-centered life is so often a truly wonderful thing to see, and is an example to us all. At such moments, the words of the Psalmist come to mind: ‘The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit’ (Ps. 34).

Whilst there are many programs to help prisoners to deal with their offending behaviour, perhaps one of the most valuable things I can do as a Dominican is to help a prisoner to put what has happened to them into the context of faith, and help them to look forward to a new life in Christ, a life of faith, strengthened by hope, making Christ present in the prison, and upon release, to the wider world, through love.

Robert Gay OP

Fr Robert Gay is Prior of the Priory of the Holy Spirit, Oxford, and he is also a lector in moral theology at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.