Prison ministry has featured on two recent Sundays in the Catholic Church. The first was obvious: Prison Sunday falls in the first week of November to raise awareness of the plight of prisoners and the work of prison chaplains. This year’s Prison Sunday was dedicated to the support of our chaplains. The second was less obvious – the gospel reading featuring Zacchaeus. How is this related to prison ministry?
Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector which means he was in the pay of the Roman occupiers. To his fellow-Jews he was a traitor and, in their words, a sinner. You may remember that, as he was such a short guy, he climbed a tree to see the holy man. Jesus noticed him and invited himself to the house of Zacchaeus who was completely transformed by the presence of Jesus.
Why would Jesus share table fellowship with someone despised by so many? It’s the same question that can sometimes be asked of prison chaplains. Why do they visit those who may have been imprisoned for crimes against society? This question brings us to the heart of this vital chaplaincy that does so much wonderful work. It’s a question I faced when studying at the seminary.
As I was a qualified physiotherapist, I was given permission to do my pastoral work at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne. Those were the days before high-tech security. The wrought iron doors would slam behind me each time I entered the prison, each door locked with a key. It was a reminder that I was ‘inside’ a tough place. The work was challenging. As a therapist I had never encountered so many violence-related injuries. I never asked why my patients were in prison and just got on with my work. But on one occasion, while treating a guy in solitary confinement, he chose to talk about his life and his ‘sins’ against society. The more he disclosed during the treatment, the more uncomfortable I became.
I began asking myself if I should be treating someone who had caused so much harm to others. The next day, at the theological college where I studied, I took this issue to a moral theology class – should I be healing this guy? That sparked a genuine debate in the classroom for over two hours, facilitated by the lecturer. Some people thought that prisoner did not deserve treatment. Others said that it was the right thing to do.
After the debate, I was clear that I wasn’t going to the prison to judge. I was going there to provide healing, so I continued to treat the prisoner. And that’s what prison chaplaincy brings to many around the country.
These chaplains are people who understand the healing mission of Jesus. They go into uncomfortable environments, but they’re not deterred.
Mother Teresa spoke about the need to be with the most marginalised in society. And you will find Jesus there. Prison chaplains get that. They talk with such enthusiasm about their ministry. And they know the moments when Jesus is in the room with them – sometimes the dark moments and sometimes the bright ones.
We can underestimate the impact of prisons on people’s lives.
Our prison chaplains don’t look for plaudits because it’s not why they’re involved in their mission. They live the words of Pope Francis who gave his opinion of the roles of our chaplains.
“We need to nourish the roots of our hope so that they can bear fruit … despite whatever evil we have done. There is no corner of our heart that cannot be touched by God’s love.
“The task of a chaplain is to let the prisoners know that the Lord is inside them. No cell is so isolated that it can keep the Lord out. He is there. He cries with them, works with them, hopes with them. His paternal and maternal love arrives everywhere.”