A deacon distributes Communion to a death-row inmate at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Ind. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Northwest Indiana Catholic)
We are sitting, the three of us, around the table in the classroom,
surrounded by posters encouraging literacy and offering opportunities for
taking up new skills. Father S. has been explaining about the Rosary, and the
young man has eagerly produced hisbright yellow and white plastic beads, given
to him at last week’s session. As we say the Hail Mary, his eyes carefully follow my fingers as I lightly
indicate the words on the printed page.
full of grace,
The Lord is with thee...”
We are praying the Sorrowful Mysteries, as it’s a Friday. The prayer
gives us a sense of order and peace, even though there is a clatter of
background noisein the corridor a noisy air conditioner is roaring
incessantly. Slowly, the thought comes into my mind: this is one of the most
sincere Rosaries I have ever heard prayed.
Jimnot his real nameis a prisoner at a big modern jail. It’s one of
Britain’s better prisons, purpose built, and with good sporting and educational
facilities. The Catholic chaplain is dedicated and hard-working. He is on good
terms with the Church of England chaplain and with the imam who serves the Muslim
prisoners; they share a chaplaincy facility, which includes a large prayer-room.
The Islamic Friday prayers are over and it has been converted into a Catholic
chapel with full altar, crucifix, statues, candles, and all the trimmings,
ready for the weekend.
Jim was baptized as a baby. “It was my Nan that wanted it, and my Mum
was happy,” he says. “And I went to Mass a bit with my Nan. She went a lotevery
week. I went with her, at Christmas and that.” His pregnant girlfriend is a
Catholic, and he wants to know more about the Faith, and to be confirmed.
As a volunteer catechist I’m often told by friends that people in prison
convert to the Faith because “it brings them privileges.” It doesn’t. There are
no special rules for Catholics: they are allowed attend talks or Mass in just
the same way that any other prisoner is allowed to take part in specific
activities for which he requests permission. Being a Catholic does perhaps give
a sense of identitymarks you out as belonging to something. It can be a sort
of badge. Non-Catholics like bits of Catholic imagery toowearing a rosary
round the neck is very popular. (I wondered at one stage if it was perhaps done
as a sort of code: maybe a secret way of indicating information about drugs or
somethingbut there’s no evidence that this is so).
A typical Catholic prisoner will be, like many Catholics today, poorly
instructed in the Faith. He will have a mixture of folklore, half-remembered
childhood experiences, superstition, and longing. Many people in prison are
also semi-literate: they are not used to reading and have spent large parts of
their lives barely reading anything at all. They respond well to religious
imagery, but often like to put their own interpretation on it, and may or may
not find it easy to retain structured information.
Repetition of familiar prayers can form a useful part of catechesis. Jim
liked learning the Hail Mary, he
already had some familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer, and he took satisfaction
in getting the Sign of the Cross right. Another prisoner told me he liked making
the Sign of the Cross when he was frightened (same here, I told him) and when
tempted to do something wrong (ditto).
I’ve been using Faith Inside,
a useful book of Catholic prayers and instruction produced by an experienced
prison chaplain. It has good, basic explanations of the signs and symbols of
our Faithvery important in a prisonand answers to the most common questions
posed by non-Catholics, including Muslims (“Do Catholics believe in three
gods?” “How could Jesus be both a man and God?”). It has practical, readable
material on confession, the Mass, Holy Communion, and moreand some testimonies
from prisoners who have reconnected with the Church while in prison, including
some rather moving ones.
Having a good chaplaina man, a priestis of course central to effective
prison ministry. I think that a woman like me (well-intentioned, volunteer,
late-middle-aged) can only be of limited use: probably my main value is in
showing that Church life in prison is part of the whole Church. We’re all in
this. I am a reminder that the Church “outside” and the Church inside the
prison are one and the same. The sacred oil that the bishop will use in
confirming Jim has been blessed at the Chrism Mass along with the oil used in
all the parishes in the diocese. As a catechist, I help with instructionI’m
part of the Church and so is Jim, and so is Father S., leading us both in
prayer. My job is to help with some teachingthey like something structured,
something concrete, with a sense of achievement at the end of itand,
privately, to pray for the prisoners. And to encourage others to do so, and to
give other help where they can. Which is why I am writing this.
We need more help in prisons. One of the best helpers the chaplain has
is a layman who is active with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Without even
realizing it, he is being a model to the young prisoners of what a Catholic man
should be likeshowing kindness, chivalry, courage, generosity, in a spirit of
manly piety which is the more effective for simply appearing normal.
There is scope for good catechesis in prison. There are goodgreatopportunities
for restoring hope and offering a real message about what life is really all
about. If the Church fails to be a living and active presence, other messages,
other belief-systems, other religions, will fill the gap. It’s a gap that does
not need to exist: Christ calls us to be there in the prison and to bring the
truth, the good news.
I trained as a catechist with the School of the Annunciation, based at
Buckfast Abbey in Devon. We were shown how to teach the Faith in its fullness,
and offered a rich and structured systematic program. Armed with a clear
understanding of doctrine, reinforced with the message of prayer that was
central to the course, I found I could teach with confidence, recognizing the
need to adapt language and approach to the needs of those being taught.
In a prison, you can’t afford to feel smug. There isobviouslya sense of separation between prisoners and everyone
else. I am a visitor and will go out, free, at the end of the visit. And I am
the catechist, not the chum: there is a natural distance between us, and I
don’t talk about my personal life or even reveal basic information about myselfthat’s not why I am there. But what emerges in prison work is the raw
reality of humans before Goda recognition that we
are all sinners.
You can’t have a sense of conceited achievement“Oooh, look how many we’ve converted!”because prison isn’t like that. You can’t advertise about how clever you
or your system has been. You can only communicate the truths of the Faith and
the love of God, within the household of the Faith, and try to show that you
live it too.
Pray for prisoners. Pray for the Church’s work in prisons.