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 his—bright 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 noise—in 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.
Jim—not his real name—is 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 lot—every 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 identity—marks you out as belonging to something. It can be a sort of badge. Non-Catholics like bits of Catholic imagery too—wearing 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 something—but 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 Faith—very important in a prison—and 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 more—and some testimonies from prisoners who have reconnected with the Church while in prison, including some rather moving ones.
Having a good chaplain—a man, a priest—is 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 instruction—I’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 teaching—they like something structured, something concrete, with a sense of achievement at the end of it—and, 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 like—showing 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 good—great—opportunities 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 is—obviously—a 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 myself—that’s not why I am there. But what emerges in prison work is the raw reality of humans before God—a 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.